Book Review: How it All Blew Up

By Arvin Ahmadi

There are no literal explosions in this book.

I was given an advance review copy of this book by NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

I’ve been reading, and enjoying the hell out of, a bunch of books aimed at young gay folk in recent months. From L C Rosen’s Camp and The Jack of Hearts (and other parts) to the quirky Boy Meets Hamster by Birdie Milano, I’ve really enjoyed reading these light, romantic, sometimes sexy, stories about people coming to terms with their identity, suffering and creating drama, and sometimes finding love.

This is the first one I’ve read with an Iranian protagonist, which adds an extra level of drama and pathos to the proceedings.

Amir is a closeted eighteen-year-old on the brink of graduating from high school when something threatens to out him to his parents, which he’s sure is going to be a disaster. In a panic and with two thousand dollars in his pocket, he flees to Rome to wait for everything to blow over.

Away from home and emboldened to do things he’d never do there, he meets a collection of delightfully queer characters who bring a great deal of life and light to the novel. Amir’s adorable and highly relatable, and his tribulations and drama feel plausible even if more sensible decisions could have headed them off at the pass.

“How It All Blew Up” was a hugely enjoyable read, and I recommend it for anyone who’d like to get a taste of sun-soaked Rome while stuck in lockdown. Come for the travelogue, but stay for the adorkable protagonist and charming supporting cast.

Book Review – “When She Was Good”

by Michael Robotham

I was given an advance review copy of this book by Netgalley.com in exchange for a fair review.

After reading “Good Girl, Bad Girl” I was sure we’d be seeing more of Cyrus and Evie, and I was looking forward to unwrapping the mystery of who Evie is and how she came to be in the situation described in the first novel. After reading “When She Was Good” I’m looking forward to more stories about Evie because she deserves them on her own merits as a character.

Given the subject matter of the crimes described in this book–including family destruction and paedophile sex trafficking–this novel could have been a lurid mess. I’m glad to say that Robotham deftly manages to convey the seriousness and lasting impact of these crimes without dwelling on them in a crass way. I was also impressed that some of the people responsible for these crimes or who enabled them were portrayed as more than 2-dimensional monsters to safely be hated and reviled.

Conversely, the protagonists are flawed people who sometiems act badly or make relatable mistakes. There are no paragons of virtue here, jsut realistic people trying to do the best they can.

I’m not sure that Robotham has quite found a unique voice for Cyrus, yet. Most of his defining characteristics are external–like his tattoos–rather than represented through his dialogue or inner monologue. I also feel like he’s portrayed quite differently in his own two novels than he was when he appeared in “The Secrets She Keeps”–perhaps that’s due to Joe O’Laughlin being an unreliable narrator in that novel?

Evie is very much her own character, and I find her voice much more interesting than Cyrus’s. In a future novel it would be interesting to see her take the role of primary character with Cyrus in a supporting role.

To wrap up, “When She Was Good” is an engaging page-turner with fascinating characters and an interesting story. If you’ve enjoyed Robotham’s novels in the past you’re sure to enjoy this too–but be aware that this novel goes to some pretty bleak places.

If you haven’t read “Good Girl, Bad Girl”, please read that first. You’ll enjoy this book much more as a result.

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!

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.

Book Review – Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

I received an Advance Review Copy of Slow Bullets from Netgalley and read it a few weeks ago (before devouring the sublimely wonderful Poseidon’s Children by the same author. If you haven’t read that and the rest of the series – Blue Remembered Earth and On The Steel Breeze you should do so immediately).

The publisher’s website describes this book thusly:

A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be.

On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship. 

Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life.

My initial response to the book was one of disappointment, but only because I had been hoping for a novel rather than a novella. Once I got past that, I found Slow Bullets was a short, enjoyable read that managed to pack in a surprisingly large number of interesting ideas and concepts in a small amount of space. The Slow Bullets of the title are data storage devices that replace the function of dog-tags in this far-future setting, but they are only the most literal representation of the motif in this story.

Words, written for posterity; people who travel across interstellar distances at slower-than-light speeds and thus become displaced in time; these too are slow bullets fired through time.

Fans of Alastair Reynolds’ work will almost certainly enjoy Slow Bullets, but this would also be a good jumping on point for those who are new to the author. It isn’t set in one of his established settings and forms a self-contained and intriguing story that could well whet people’s appetites for more of his work.

Book Review: “Killer” by Jonathan Kellerman

I was lucky enough to be approved for an uncorrected draft copy of “Killer” by Jonathan Kellerman.  This is the latest in the series about Alex Delaware, a psychiatrist who consults with the Los Angeles Police Department to help them solve crimes, principally with his gay homicide detective friend, Milo Sturgis.

What did I think of the book?

Continue reading “Book Review: “Killer” by Jonathan Kellerman”