Book Review: “The Gravity Of Us” by Phil Stamper

Front cover of "The Gravity of Us" by Phil Stamper.

Publication date 14th May 2020

I was given a review copy of this book by Netgalley.com. This review avoids spoilers as much as possible.

This is another of those books I wish had been around when I was a teenager. The romance is cute, the drama isn’t too overblown given the context, and the ending is very satisfying. However, this is more than an enjoyable fluff piece, with some interesting critique of modern media and how, in some ways, it’s not so modern after all.

Cal, the 17-year-old protagonist of this book, is a feisty ‘FlashFame’ new media personality whose life is turned upside down by his father’s involvement with a NASA mission to Mars. I’m too old to judge fully whether Cal is authentic as a teenage New Yorker and Digital Native, but at times his personality did seem perhaps a little on the nose; he listens to cassettes because he claims they ‘sound smoother’ and he rolls his eyes at old people and their poor understanding of how and why videos go viral and what that either means.

Having said that, Stamper does a great job of exploring Cal’s mind and personality (including his flaws) through the first-person narration and it turns out that there are deeper reasons behind some of his superficially hipstery behaviours. Stamper also engages in a degree of lampshading in regard to Cal’s NY hipster vibe, with his romantic interest poking a bit of fun in that general direction.

There’s a lot to like about this book. If it has a central theme, I’d say it’s the toxic effects of the codependency between the media and scientific agencies like NASA, and the difficulties that come along with relationships in general. While Cal’s romance is a major element of the novel, it was highly refreshing to me that neither his sexuality nor that of his romantic interest was a big deal.

Ignoring the usual beats in a queer romance story of finding acceptance of one’s true self from friends and family and coming to terms with one’s own sexuality was a really good move on Stamper’s part. Instead, this novel is more about learning to accept the problems of our partners that we can’t change, only help them to deal with in their own ways.

One character has depression. A couple deals with bickering and relationship strife due to their different personalities and ways of coping with things. Someone has to deal with their overwhelming urge to present a strong front and pretend they’re okay, to fix everyone else even when they themselves are in need of support.

Everyone (except the villains of the piece, and even one of them is more sympathetic than you might expect) is immensely likeable and I really found myself investing in their relationships and their goals.

The romance is written well, taking me directly back to the heady high of new love in a deeply visceral way. The charge of knee’s brushing, a hot hand on your shoulder, first kisses; all are written with great sensuality and attention to detail that make these moments highly effective.

If I were to criticise anything it would be to say that the second act drama surrounding the mission to Mars is perhaps a smidgeon overblown and perhaps resolved a smidgeon too easily, but that’s easily overlooked against the sheer enjoyment I got out of this book.

Book Review: Ghosts of Gotham by Craig Schaefer

Ghosts of Gotham, out on the 9th April 2019, is the latest book from Craig Schaefer, who has spent the last few years writing a consistently high-quality collection of interlinked books in the form of the Revanche cycle, the Daniel Faust series, the Harmony Black series, and most recently the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy.

I was given an advance review copy of the book by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This review avoids spoilers as much as possible.

I always enjoy Schaefer’s nuanced characters, and this book was no exception. Most authors in the urban fantasy genre either write antiheroes or paragons of virtue, but Schaefer seems to enjoy giving even the noblest of characters a few fatal flaws to make them feel more real and complex, without veering into edgelord grimdark territory.

Lionel, the protagonist of Ghosts, is one of Schaefer’s more wholesome characters, but even he has some personality traits that make him more than a clichéd urban fantasy hero.

Like Schaefer’s other protagonist, Daniel Faust, Lionel is prone to snarky humour. Despite this superficial similarity the two read quite differently, and I never felt that I was just reading another Faust story as I got into the meat of Ghosts of Gotham.

The supporting cast is also highly enjoyable, from Lionel’s work colleagues and friends in Chicago to the weird and wonderful denizens of New York whose acquaintance he makes during the course of his search for an original Poe manuscript.

On the surface, Ghosts is a literary mystery story, but it’s not too long before the straightforward plot goes off the rails and introduces us to a new world of magic and mysteries not linked to Schaefer’s previous works. I thoroughly enjoyed Lionel’s trip down the rabbit hole and didn’t want the novel to end.

I’m absolutely certain that Schaefer’s existing fans will love this book, but equally I’d highly recommend this as an opportunity for new folks to come into a series on the ground floor and have a taste of what’s on offer from one of my favourite urban fantasy authors.

Book Review – Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), by L. C. Rosen

Publication Date: 30th October 2018

Genre: Thriller/Young Adult/LGBTQIA/Romance

I was given the opportunity to read this up-and-coming novel courtesy, of the publishers and via Netgalley

First of all, I wish that books like this had been around when I was a teenager. Hell, I wish that we’d had someone like Jack at my school when I was a teenager. So many years of confusion and discomfort about my sexual identity might never have happened.

Comparisons with “Love, Simon” are inevitable, so let’s get that out of the way. Yes, this book features a gay teenager. Yes, it contains a central hidden identity mystery that forms the core of the novel. Yes, it features coercion and blackmail. 

This book feels much more real, more authentic, much less of the Hollywood romanticised view of young gay folk… though it too has a few elements redolent of wish fulfilment.

I expect this book will be shocking to some audiences, because it features frank and detailed discussion of sexual acts between consenting people who are under the age of 18. It features such people smoking, drinking and smoking marijuana, too… and not being guilt-tripped or punished for it.

Jack himself, and his supporting cast of fuck buddies, friends, and compatriots, feel realistic and emotionally well-drawn. As Jack is slowly suffocated throughout the novel by the attentions of his stalker, I found myself hurting for him and just wishing that he’d open up to his mom and the other adults in his life, but whereas Simon’s silence in “Love, Simon” felt forced and unrealistic to me, Jack’s desire to ignore the problem until it went away and unwillingness to draw other people into his problem felt totally, heart-breakingly realistic.

For me a highlight of the novel were Jack’s advice columns, which tackled a range of subjects in what I felt was a heartfelt, funny, and effective way. Not only that, but his advice was absolutely spot-on, and highlighted the importance of communication and enthusiastic consent.

If I had to quibble about anything I’d say that perhaps the ending was a little too quick and convenient, but that’s really only a minor complaint… and honestly it was a relief due to the tension that had been building up over the course of the novel.

I highly recommend this book, especially for LGBTQIA folk and their parents. It would make a great gift for someone who’s recently come out, too!

Start Writing Fiction: Exercise Four

Turn on the radio and take note of the first thing that is mentioned. Use it as the basis for either the start of a story or an entire story – whichever, it should be no more than 500 words. Imagine a character, someone who is central to what the story is about. Try to use clear, vivid language so that your reader can see the character. Use some of the characterisation techniques we have talked about so far.

The first thing I heard was an article about refugees and the response of French right-wing politicians to the Syrian refugee crisis. And so, this.

Continue reading “Start Writing Fiction: Exercise Four”

Start Writing Fiction: Exercise Two

Review the notes you’ve collected in your notebook to find a character to develop further.

Pick a character. If you’ve collected, in your notebook, details about people you’ve spotted or spoken to during this week, pick one of these characters. Alternatively, you can pick one of the characters from the opening video.

Write a short character sketch – no more than 200 words – in which you concentrate on appearance and any particular mannerisms you noted.

You will come back to this later so save a copy on your computer or device. Continue reading “Start Writing Fiction: Exercise Two”

Book Review – “Life or Death” by Michael Robotham

I really, really enjoyed this book. I received a review copy from Netgalley and then devoured it in a few hours of breathless reading. I liked it enough that on finishing it I immediately logged in to my Kobo account and bought all nine of the other books I could find by this author.

At its heart, Life or Death is a good old-fashioned crime thriller that reminded me of Richard North Patterson or John Grisham at their best. The plotting is very neatly done done, with the story unfolding in a series of neat and logical revelations that prove to be very satisfying by the end. Some might complain about the ‘luck’ and coincidence that ties the story together, but for me it was very fitting to the subject matter and never strained credulity past the breaking point.

I’m pleased to say that there was no evidence of characters acting stupidly to further the plot or to provide artificial tension or twists. While people act foolishly at times in the book,they do so in ways that are consistent with their characterisation, histories and circumstances.

A lot of crime thrillers seem to taper off towards the ending or introduce an artificial scene where the protagonist is endangered unnecessarily just to ramp up the tension in a fairly transparent way (I am so sick of authors writing scenes where the protagonist can’t reach their support network of police or other allies due to storms, phone problems, being suspected of being the murderer, and so on…) but Life or Death has an ending that is as satisfying as its beginning.

Finally, I really enjoyed the characters in this book. They all felt like living, breathing people with hopes, dreams, and fears, and the protagonist Audie Palmer is one of the most likeable fellows I’ve read about in recent memory. Even the villains are portrayed as more than thumbnail sketches of eeeeevil with their own motivations and rationalisations for their actions.

This book is highly recommended. Comparisons with Rita Hayworth and the The Shawshank Redemption are well-earned.