Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How Many Ways Can You "Go Out in Style"?

Going Out in Style by Daniel Kelley is a collection of six short stories, each centred around the title theme, 'Going Out in Style', whether for better or worse. There are various directions and meanings one phrase can have and six of them are explored in these stories.

In the first, 'Performer', Thomas L. Blatten is being 'let go' from the Philharmonic Orchestra he's been with for 42 years.

First Sentence:

"A man shouldn't have to read his own obituary."

Playing fourth chair French horn was not something he saw himself doing for so long, but when he won the job all those years ago, he couldn't be bothered to go through it all again and 'got stuck'. 

At 65, he wonders what's in store for him now. What does his future hold? As his final concert plays, he criticises aspects of his life and the people in it, all with a cynical flair. He relives moments of his life, getting this job, meeting his wife, his children and ponders the future with a bleak, monotone voice.

But Thomas has a plan for his final performance. He intends to be remembered. 

In 'Bathtub Ripples', 37-year-old Andie is running herself a bath, enjoying the luxurious sensations and the joy it brings. 

First Sentence:

"The bathtub was almost ready, the flow from the old brass faucet now churning deeply into water instead of splashing onto cold porcelain."

As the story progresses, her mind turns to the past. Her failed relationships and her childhood up to the life she now leads. What starts off as a light story about simple pleasures, takes a darker turn.

The third story, 'Getting to Know You', finds an author on a book tour. 

First Sentence:

"I had finished my reading, my talk, and then the question-and-answer session, the most harrowing segment of the three."

All he wants is for it to be over so he can go home. He's uncomfortable in public and around people in general, so distances himself with arrogance and vanity. 

After the final signing, a woman approaches him on the street as he waits for the valet to bring his car round. She claims to be a fan, but his demeanour instantly causes problems. But her wit is a match of his own and she refuses to back down. 

Fascinated and terrified by this brazen woman, with no qualms about giving him a piece of her mind, he begins to open up. This only leads to further intrigue, as revealing anything about himself is an incredibly rare event. Does he want that to change?

'Thinking Back' is a story that tells exactly the way its title would imply. 

First Sentence:

"A man rode by me on a bicycle."

Beginning on a Saturday, it works backwards to Wednesday, revealing the answers in its wake. 

Maddie and her husband Dave are enjoying some family time with their two children, when the police knock on their door. One of their neighbours, a good friend of theirs, is dead. Murdered. A few quick questions and the policewoman asks them to get in touch if they remember anything that could help with the case. 

As the days rewind, the 'who' and the 'why' take form and the inevitable truth comes out. 

In the penultimate story, 'Doing It All', we meet Simon Oddgrove.

First Sentence:

"Simon Oddgrove was lying on his bed, thinking."

A very 'go with the flow' kind of man, he's never put too much thought into anything. Decisions are something he doesn't do, preferring to leave it to chance or someone else.

Growing up close to his Aunt Nettie, she is the relative he stays in touch with most frequently. When he was younger, she labelled him 'a boy of potential', something he has never forgotten. In the past, she has met exactly three of his girlfriends, two of which ended the relationship shortly after. The third, Etheline, is his current girlfriend and his aunt and her get along peachy. 

But Simon hasn't been returning either of their calls. He's been forced to make a decision and is unsure of what to do. Having never made a decision in his life, this is too much for him to handle. So he shuts himself off from the world and lies on his bed, thinking.

The final story is 'A Child's Game'. 

First Sentence:

"It had taken nearly an hour and a half, but I'd found it."

It tells the story of Janice and her complicated love-triangle, built from lies and false promises. She finally understands the reality and is looking for closure. All it takes is a little paper and some scissors. 

An enjoyable set of stories, with some similar plots, but each with their own individuality, while still maintaining the connection to the others. The emotions range from heartwarming to heartbreaking and a lot of the stories centre around regrets and how people react to them, deal with them or don't. 

Each story is broken up into sections, often three, much like a script. Act One, Act Two and Act Three and (as is tradition) a little more is revealed in each part. It's an interesting style to incorporate into a short story, but it works very well. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this short book. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be 'Bathtub Ripples'. The description of the perfect bath is fantastic and the direction the story takes is a perfect mix of chilling, uncomfortable and inevitable bittersweetness. I found myself cringing with the description and naively hoping for an alternate outcome. All this in eight (Kindle) pages. 

With five other stories, there's bound to be at least one, if not more, for everyone. 

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Everything You Can Imagine Is Real"- Pablo Picasso

First Paragraph:

"William Balder was born in Ottawa, Ontario on Aug. 12 1973. He spent most of his life in the Ottawa Valley. He had two sisters and a brother, all older than himself, and the best parents anyone could ask for. He spent most of his youngest years with his cousin, then as he grew, he had friends from school. He was close to all his family, Aunts, Uncles, and cousins alike when he was young, but drifted away from most of them when he hit his teens."

Cruel Imagination 1- The Beginning is the first book in a series by Trevor Couturier. 

Set in Ontario, William Balder lives in a farm house with his wife of 18 years, Mona, and their two teenage daughters, Amie and Elizabeth. Bills, the mortgage and refurbishments take a lot out of their budget. Mona is an accountant, but to keep up with all the costs, Will has two jobs, neither of which offer a lot of work. His main income comes from the 10 weeks out of the year he works for a demolition company and his second job pays very little, for one day's work helping his old nanny with her stall at the farmer's market. 

In between all the time he spends working and with his family, Will tries to make time for his passion. What Will really wants is to be a writer. The problem is he doesn't know what to write. He's tried poetry, short stories, "How-To" books and a cook book, none of which were published. Now he struggles to write at all.

One night, Will has a dream. In his dream, he meets an old man with a long, white beard and hair, both streaked with grey. He wears a floppy hat, an old, leather jacket with a Led Zeppelin shirt beneath and biker boots- complete with steel toe caps. The old man offers him power. The power to imagine anything into existence. 

The next day, Will tells his wife about it. They don't think too much about at first. Why would you? But Will starts to wonder about whether the power of creation through imagination is more of a curse than a gift. He could imagine anything, including bad things. Things he never wants to happen. Was it all a dream? Nothing he's imagined since waking up has occurred? If it wasn't a dream, does he really have the power? What should he do with it? How could he control it? And just who is the old man, with the long, white beard?

An odd story. Somehow disjointed, but still coherent. Starting off as an almost slice-of-life like story, but with an air of uncertainty and an unsettling quality to seemingly normal events. What genre I would classify this book as, I'm not sure. The first half of the story is just everyday events, bar the dream. This changes at the second half, to what I won't say.

An interesting short book, that provides no real answers. Who the characters are, what is real and even what the plot is about are all up to the interpretation of the reader, including (especially) the ending. What actually happened at the end, I'm unsure of. There are many possibilities and I'm almost disappointed that there's a second book because it will create a more definite ending to this one, rather than the ambiguous one we're left with. 

The concept was a very intriguing one. As someone with an occasionally annoyingly, overactive imagination, the 'what-if' scenarios spring to mind. What if everything you imagined came to be? The nature of the human psyche is such that we focus more on what we fear, imagine things that could go wrong and the worse case scenarios, more than we focus on our dreams, aspirations and our happiness.  This is especially true when we are under stress or threat. Having to keep a check on your every thought and keep your mind blank is hard enough, without fear breathing down your neck. 

I'm interested to see where the story will go in the next book. How Will's story will continue and whether I want it to. Will the next book be more of the same and basically just a re-write of this story, or is there somewhere else it can go? There aren't many answers in this book, but I prefer it that way. Solving the puzzles and questions would somehow make the story more mundane.

There are a few moments that feel out of place or didn't need to be a part of the story, but since when did necessity dictate creativity. For the most part there's no problem, but there were a few plot points and seemingly important information or clues that go nowhere. Whether they are bread crumbs that will trail through the series until the epiphany at the end is uncertain. They may simply be random comments that don't mean a thing. 

One aspect of the book (not the story) that ruins it a little are the continuous spelling and grammar errors. Luckily, I'm someone who always finishes a book once I've started it and this book was no exception. I wouldn't mention it if they were scarce, but it's more than the odd mistake. However, books should be read for their stories. Grammar and spelling are luxuries, that are nice to have and definitely preferable, but not necessary. Grammar and spelling are not indicative of a story-teller's skill, though good spelling and grammar are important. Basically, if the story's good (or in my case regardless) these mistakes can be put to the side and pushed through. 

On an unrelated, largely irrelevant side note, there is a parallel between Will's life and the author's. Both have a wife and two daughters. Both have two sisters and a brother- all of which are older. And both write.  It may be that the author wanted to dedicate his book to them through the addition of their personas into his story, but I'd be interested to know what similarities his characters have to the people in his life, including himself. Is Will his own persona? As I stated earlier, this has absolutely nothing to do with the story, but is more of an area of intrigue. 

Overall, an interesting story, though the concept may hold more that the deliverance. I enjoyed this short book, but as I said earlier, I'm not sure whether I'll check out the next in the series. Leaving the ending ambiguously dependent on my own imagination is almost too much to pass up.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Time Paradox, A Wanted Man and The Digital Woman

First Paragraph:

"Saskia Brandt emerged from the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate and narrowed her eyes at the evening. The mirrored arches of the Federal Office of Investigation gleamed in front of her. Minutes later, she strode inside. She crossed the inlaid insignia- Ex tabula rasa- and dumped her ceramic revolver in a tray. Huffed. Stepped through the detector and retrieved the gun while the guard folded his arms and made her feel exposed with her hair down, absurd in her casual skirt, short in her flip flops."

Deja Vu by Ian Hocking is the first book in 'The Saskia Brandt Series".

Set in the year 2023, the story begins in Berlin. Saskia Brandt is returning to her office after a breakup with her boyfriend Simon- who was upset that her job with the FIB (Federal Office of Investigation) was always calling her away. 

Having returned two days earlier than expected, she wonders where her secretary is. Computers in this future have very advanced AI and conversations with them are the norm. Which leads Saskia to ask both where her secretary is and why the air conditioning is off of her computer. Though it is extremely intelligent, its answers are not very helpful. But Saskia is able to solve the puzzle quickly when she finds her secretary's body in the fridge- with a stab wound below her left ear. 

Realising that she is being framed, she goes to her superior, Beckman, and tells him what's happened, to which he replies that she needs to deal with it herself. Being charged with murder in this world leads to different repercussions than our own. If you are found guilty (which generally you are), you are executed (if you're lucky) or subjected to a brain wipe (which leaves you as a very literal, programmable blank slate).

Trying to find evidence that could prove her innocence, she manages to find and enhance a still shot of the murderer's face (off of the blade he used to kill her secretary). When the image comes back, her world falls apart. She's staring at a photo of herself. Scrutinising her mind for the missing memories of killing the woman, she's met with the cold truth that her whole life is fabricated. She has no memories of who she is that weren't created and implanted by someone else. 

Beckman informs her that her mind was erased three weeks ago- after she was found guilty of murder- and that this was all a test to see if she could be part of a special group. One trained to hunt down other killers. He gives her a choice- work for him (receiving false memories and becoming his puppet) or be executed. With little choice, she accepts and is given her first mission.

Meanwhile in Nevada, Jennifer Proctor has invented the time machine. She works with the same facility that her father, David, used to work for. He lost his job after he was accused of planting a bomb in their own base in 2003. The explosion killed his wife and cost him his career, though he was acquitted of the charges. 

David has been called to Scotland, to the deserted base to find his old friend, Bruce- who has broken into the labs. What he finds is a dying man. Both men wanted to destroy the project they were working on twenty years ago, but have been unable to. David plans to rectify that. This time, he is the one who plants the bomb- killing Bruce in the process and making David a wanted man, armed only with his pocket-computer (a prototype) called Ego and a drawing his daughter made when she was younger, he must depend on his wits and the help of a mysterious woman and her cryptic messages. 

Saskia is now after David Proctor. She meets Klutikov, a Russian agent who is also a puppet like her. He tells her about the microchips in their brains, that transmit the false memories and knowledge they possess. If her chip fails, so does she. Her mind and body do not come from the same person. Her body is that of a killer she never knew and she is a parasite plugged into it. Even her being, what she calls herself, is just a bunch of donor memories. 

Teamed up with an older Detective in Edinburgh, Pihilp Jago- who she affectionally nicknames Scotty, they search for the elusive David Proctor. Throughout, Saskia keeps seeing random flashes of another woman- the woman this body belonged to, but they are too disjointed and vague. All she comes away with is a woman's name- Ute. Does she want these memories? Does she want to meet Ute- who the press nicknamed the "Angel of Death"?

There are a lot of Greek and Shakespearean references scattered throughout this book. In particular, the three fates- who cut your string when they deem that your life is up. Quite fitting seeing as Saskia's life is in another's hands. I also got echoes of something else. For anyone who has seen Joss Whedon's Dollhouse series, this holds a lot of similarities. The obvious one being, wiping the minds of people so that you can insert new ones that make them anyone. They can have any skill, they can be anything their creator desires. 

Time-travel (which is present in this story) is always tricky to work with. The unavoidable paradoxes can leave crumbling holes in the plot. Here, it is done well. The points align, while still leaving necessary things ambiguous. There is still that question of whether you can actually change anything in the past or whether it has to happen because it's already happened. Best not to dwell on it too long. If you're looking for a scientific, deeply detailed explanation of time-travel and the many issues around it, this is not that.

I don't have too much to say about the characters. The one character who really stood out to me was, as you might expect, Saskia. The thought that your personality, your mind, your being is all a digital splicing of other people is extraordinary- both in its obscureness and in the fear it creates. That you are an intruder, a stranger in your own body must be a terrifying thing. What would you do? Would you want to know who the other half of your 'self' had been?

The ending was a conclusion. What I mean is, all the strings are brought together and the questions answered. The reader is brought full circle, back to the very beginning. There's nothing more to really say. It was a little anticlimactic. The penultimate big reveal gives us the whole picture of Saskia, in all its dramatic glory. But afterwards, the story fizzles out and just ends. There is the finale, where everything is wrapped up, but so much of the pace is lost, that it just sits there. 

I'm not sure whether I'll carry on with the series. I found the concept intriguing, but the plot less so and with the reveal of Saskia's backstory, I'm left wondering if there's any more that I want to know. 

Overall, a good read. If you're a fan of action, sci-fi or the paradoxes of life- this is for you.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Romantic Getaway in Italy, Bullets, Bad Guys and A New Life as a Fugitive Included

First Paragraph:

"It was supposed to be an easy job. 
"Cake," Rick had said.
Sammy Dovitz tossed his binoculars onto the passenger seat then shifted restlessly within the confines of the black KIA. It should have been an easy job- no dog and no sign of an alarm installed. The large cottonwood in the front yard hid some of the two-story house and made it difficult to see what was going on upstairs, but the situation also worked to his advantage- he'd take mature landscaping over barren new lots any day. High hedges, shrubs, and towering trees made it possible to move around unnoticed."

  Amazon /Amazon.co.uk 

Elusive by Sara Rosett is the first book in the "On the Run" series. 

Starting out in Dallas, Texas, we meet Zoe Hunter- a fiery, red-head (aren't they always) who spends most of her time trying to support herself. She does a lot of odd-jobs, such as dog walking, but her main sources of income come from books she copy-edits for an independent travel company and office spaces her aunt gave her as early inheritance. Her aunt promised they would be a great investment. She rents out two of the offices. 

One of those offices is rented by her ex-husband and his company (GRA- Green Recyclable Services). It's a company he started and co-owns with Connor (a man with great disdain for any digital technology). They have a secretary named Sandra and that's it. Three employees. Jack handles all the computer work (because of Connor's aversion) except the accounts, which Connor handles. Together, the three of them manage to scrape by and the company's stocks seem to be increasing in value surprisingly quickly.

Zoe and Jack may be ex-spouses, but they still share the house. Not because they want to, but because they can't afford to sell it or get their own places. So they have a very delicate set-up designed to give them their own spaces and keep them apart. Zoe has the entire downstairs, while Jack gets the upstairs. Jack uses the front door, Zoe uses the back. This ensures they never meet. Jack doesn't even use the kitchen, he has a hot plate and mini-fridge upstairs that is apparently all he requires. 

Returning to his office after lunch one day, Jack finds something amiss. Sandra is out at the orthodontist and has been given the rest of the day off, but Connor should be there. He should be able to hear him from his own office. And someone has used his computer. As he stares at the screensaver and blinks the screen into life, he finds his bank account on the monitor. All of his company shares are sold, including ones he didn't own. There is now twelve million dollars in shares. Much more than they had. Opening his drawer he finds his gun, that he leaves at home, in the attic. 

Later, Zoe gets a visit from the police. They found Jack's car at the side of a bridge. Someone reported seeing a man getting swept away down the river. The story goes that Jack tried to seek cover under the bridge from the tornado that passed by earlier in the day. He must have slipped on the bank and fallen into the fast-moving water below. The police aren't hopeful.

Zoe is in a daze. She doesn't know how to feel. Going to his office to let Sandra and Connor know that Jack's missing, she instead finds it empty. There's an odd smell coming from the office and she follows it to Connor's door. Inside she finds Connor, a bullet hole through his forehead.

Now the FBI are involved. What started out as a search for a missing man has turned into a hunt for a fugitive. But Zoe can't believe that. Jack is not the type to cook the books then kill a man for the money and go AWOL. But now the FBI are very interested in her. She's the closest person to Jack. The only family he has is a cousin in Vegas. Zoe is his next of kin, which of course puts her in prime suspect position. 

Realising that situation is quickly going from back to worse, Zoe thinks it's best to contact his cousin, Eddie. She goes upstairs to find his computer and locate Eddie's details. But calling the number, she finds two shocks in store. One, Eddie is a woman and two, she claims she doesn't know Jack then hangs up. Trying to call back she gets put through to voicemail. Irritated she accidentally knocks over his lamp and finds rolls of money hidden inside the base. Determined to find out more, she thoroughly checks the house and comes up with more money and two passports, one for a woman named Irena and the second for a Brian Kenneth McGee- who's photo is that of her ex-husband's. 

Confused and afraid that the police will use this against her, she tries to make a decision. But when she finds the police coming back with a warrant, she chooses to run. Grabbing a few essentials, she decides on Vegas. If Eddie won't take her calls, she'll just have to go to her in person. Right now, she's the only lead Zoe's got. 

With one partner dead and the other missing under suspicious circumstances - along with millions of dollars-the question of fraud and murder are only shadowed by one question- Where is Jack Andrews? Or for Zoe- Who is Jack Andrews? Discovering the answer will take her on a roller-coaster journey through Dallas, Vegas, Rome, Naples and Venice. Well, she's always wanted to see Italy.

The characters were typical of this genre. You have the bad guys, the good guys and the normals. Within the groups, you have the 'good guy who's not used to bad', the 'bad guy pretending to be good', the 'really bad guy', 'the betrayer', all the usual suspect that make this genre so formulaically enjoyable to read. I would put this story between cozy mystery and thriller. There are darker elements, but for the most part I would say it's more of a light-hearted read. 

The ending was strong. It resolves on, literally, the last line and is most definitely an incentive to check out the next book. I was enthralled by the story. Those who are familiar with me will know I can't resist a good mystery- whether it be cozy or dark. I will be checking out the next part of the story and thoroughly recommend this book for anyone who likes a good whodunit, with a little humour and romance thrown in.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Terrifying Disease, A Man Who's a Woman and Sherlock Holmes

First Paragraph:

"I never considered writing anything but science papers. Not until my family and I moved into a house with a history dating back to 1529. While ripping off all 'modern improvements' to restore some of the house's historic charm, we found a treasure. Hidden underneath the attic's floorboards, among thick layers of clay, sand and larch needles, were a dozen slender books bound in dark leather. These were the journals of Dr. Kronberg."

  Amazon /Amazon.co.uk

The Devil's Grin by Annelie Wendeberg is the first book in the 'Kronberg Crimes' series. 

Set in Victorian England, this book is a mix of fiction and historical facts. Disease coats the streets and Jack the Ripper haunts the alleys. People will do anything to survive.

The year is 1889 and Doctor Anton Kronberg has been asked for assistance in identifying a possible cholera victim at the Hampton Water Treatment Works by Scotland Yard's Inspector Gibson. Anton works at Guy's Hospital in London in the ward of infectious diseases. The best bacteriologist and epidemiologist in England. Cholera is one of many constant threats and the hospital is always packed three to a bed, leading to the further spread of disease. 

Going to inspect the dead man, Anton meets the famous Sherlock Holmes, who surprises both Anton and the reader by discovering that Anton Kronberg is in fact Anna Kronberg, a female doctor who earned her degree in Germany. Anna is reasonably upset. This is an era where women are forbidden to study medicine or become doctors. The only women in a medical field are nurses. Anna works very hard to keep her identity secret by changing her countenance and her appearance, even going as far as to keep a bag filled with water in her trousers so her colleagues can occasional see her 'peeing' at the urinals, to leave no doubt in their minds that she is a man. If her secret was ever revealed, she would be incarcerated for life.

Anna is just as sharp and observant as Sherlock. The two decide to work with each other (which neither of them are particularly used to or pleased about) after finding a few discrepancies on the body. The two will have to learn to deal with one another and try to get along with someone just as knowledgable as themselves. They will no doubt get on each other's nerves, but there is amicability and understanding there too. 

As they begin to see more into the dark underworld and corrupt corporations that are involved, they begin to realise just how deep they're in. Could the man have been killed by tetanus? If so, how could he contract it without any deep wounds or without consuming a tetanus infected animal? Is it possible he was murdered? They must also learn to battle with their own dark demons and consider how far either of them are willing to go to find the truth, even if it means risking their lives or that of others. 

The title of this book comes from one of the symptoms of a tetanus victim- a grin. It is a telltale sign of tetanus. 

The characters are intriguing. Sherlock is Sherlock. What can I say about this character that isn't already known to every person under the sun? His depiction here is very similar to his original character. Obviously, there will be slight discrepancies, not just because of a different author, but also because he's interacting with people he's never met before. All people act differently depending on the person they're with, including Sherlock. For fans of Sherlock, don't worry, he is still true to himself, if not for the occasional phrase I couldn't quite picture him saying. 

Sherlock himself is already a character who's interesting enough to carry the story, but Anna/Anton's character was equally compelling, to say the least. Forced to hide her gender, she spends so much time as a man, that she questions her identity. It's not that she's transgender or confused about her sexuality, but more that she has seen the pros and cons of being a member of each gender and she wonders which one it is better to be and which one she is more suited to. Add to that the fact that she must completely shed her female self, so as not to be discovered, and it's not wonder she's unsure. 

Like Sherlock, she will push herself to her physical and mental limits to get an answer. Together, the chemistry these two characters share is palpable. I'm bringing it up because I'm sure people will wonder, but the only similarity between her and Irene is that the two are equally as intelligent as Sherlock himself. They can outwit him. But Irene is very sure of her gender and obviously loves being a woman and the ability to make Sherlock uncomfortable with it. Anna isn't even sure what gender she wants to be. Their personalities are very different and these two characters are not to be confused.

Anna and Sherlock can singlehandedly carry this story. The plot is interesting and dark, but even if it had been terrible, I believe that Anna and Sherlock would still make it work. They're just that entertaining and thought-provoking. 

An incomplete ending, this is a series that connects all its stories through plot, not just characters. It is not often that the same story will continue through the series. The same villain perhaps, but generally when you start a new book, a new plot begins as well. For those who aren't fans of endings without resolution, there is enough of a conclusion to satisfy. We just aren't given the whole picture. The final line will leave fans of both this book's characters and Sherlock Holmes hurrying to the next instalment. 

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.