Book Review: Geekerella

Geekerella, by Ashley Poston, is a contemporary retelling of the story of Cinderella with the eponymous heroine cast as a lonely fandom nerd. Aimed at young adult readers it explores a world influenced by social media updates and special interest blogging; where fan fiction, cosplay and science fiction conventions provide outlets for those who feel alienated by what the cool kids and aspirational adults regard as desirable.

Ellie Wittimer lives with her dead father’s second wife, Catherine, and Catherine’s two daughters, Cal and Chloe. These three mock Ellie for expecting that she could ever make anything of herself. While she works on a fast food van, coming home to cook their meals, they socialise at an upmarket Country Club where the girls play tennis in the hope of gaining college entry. They encourage their friends to join them in putting their step-sister down.

Ellie has been miserable since her parents died. She cherishes the fond memories she retains of watching every episode of Starfield, a classic sci-fi series, over and over again with her dad, Robin, and then writing related fanfiction for him to read. Robin Wittimer founded the ExcelsiCon, an annual sci-fi event still held in LA. Ellie’s parents would go each year, cosplaying as Prince Carmindor and Princess Amara from the Starfield series, taking young Ellie along to soak up the atmosphere.

There is to be a reboot of Starfield and Ellie is wary of what will be done to something so important to her and other cult followers. When she hears that teen hearthrob, Darien Freeman, is to be cast as Carmindor she is horrified, unaware that he too is an informed and passionate fan. She writes cuttingly of him on her blog, which suddenly gains an increase in readership.

The story alternates between Darien’s story and Ellie’s. As part of his promotion for the Starfield film Darien will be required to attend ExcelsiCon and judge the cosplay competition. In an attempt to get out of this role, in which he would have to stick to his professional brand, he tries to contact the organisor. He ends up texting Ellie who still uses her Dad’s old phone. Without knowing who the other is they are drawn to each other. Communications continue, offering an escape from their unsatisfactory lives.

When Ellie decides to go behind her step-mother’s back and enter the cosplay competition she hopes to meet this unknown boy with whom she now feels such an affinity. Her carefully laid plans hit problems when Cal and Chloe decide to attend ExcelsiCon too.

I was surprised at how well this cast of characters fitted with the traditional story. Despite knowing what must happen the author creates tension and emotion as both Ellie and Darien push back against parental binds. The rarefied world of celebrities and their fans of fame are well evoked alongside the escapist geeky world in which Ellie resides.

An enjoyable romp that remained engaging and entertaining throughout. I pondered the issues raised of family loyalties given the modern, western world’s often complex households. The importance of standing up for kindness and friendship offer lessons all would benefit from learning.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk Books. 

Mothers’ Day – Guest Post by Emma Curtis

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Today I am delighted to welcome Emma Curtis, author of suspense thriller One Little Mistake (which I review here), to my blog. Emma’s book explores the tricky balancing act that so many women live juggling friendship, marriage and motherhood – and the catastrophic consequences of a seemingly small mistake. She has written this guest post for Mothers’ Day.

On Mothers’ Day, we reflect on everything our mothers did for us and we give them a call, or take them a bunch of flowers, and thank them. This is the time to forget the fact that as teenagers, we said to ourselves, if I ever have children I will never do that! It’s the time to forget the parties we weren’t allowed to go to, to forgive the unreasonable bedtimes and irrational decisions that were never satisfactorily explained. When you have your own children you quickly realize that even if you do have a mental check list of the dreadful things your own mother did, there is a one hundred percent chance your kids will be able to come up with some humdingers of your doing. Mothers’ Day is a time to remember that mothers are human beings, and if they make mistakes it’s because they love us and worry for us and sometimes overreact.

One Little Mistake is a novel about an ordinary wife and mother who doesn’t always get it right. But none of this would have mattered and she would have muddled on, just like the rest of us, had it not been for one major lapse in judgement. When I wrote Vicky Seagrave, I drew on my own experiences of falling into motherhood four years before I had planned or wanted to. It caught me and my husband by surprise and we were unprepared for every aspect of it: the love, the fatigue, the mess, the restrictions, the adjustment in our own relationship.

Vicky’s ‘Mistake’ has a catastrophic effect on her life, the reverberations rippling through her marriage, her closest friendship, her job and her position in the community, putting at risk everything she holds dear. One Little Mistake is a psychological suspense novel, so what happens to Vicky and the danger she puts herself and her family in, is of course extreme. However, at the heart of it I wanted to show the confusing side of motherhood: feeling out of control; discovering that it’s not all perfect baby skin, talcum powder and fluffy white towels like in the ads, that it’s mess and tears, it’s unwashed hair and eyes bruised and baggy from lack of sleep. It’s dirty dishes piling up and piling on the pounds. It’s being two hours into a six-hour train journey to Edinburgh and realising you forgot the spare nappies – yes, that was me! It’s keeping things going on the surface and trying to ignore the muddle churning underneath.

But above all, it’s a mountain that we climb not so much because we have no choice, but through animal instinct and unconditional love. And in the end, you kiss your children as they leave the house on their own for the first time and you know that it’s OK. You can forgive yourself the mistakes you’ve made, because they make you proud. And then one day, you tell your twenty-five- year-old daughter, sitting on the sofa glued to her laptop, that you love her and she answers distractedly that she loves you too.

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One Little Mistake is published by Black Swan, an imprint of Transworld Books.

 

Book Review: One Little Mistake

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One Little Mistake, by Emma Curtis, starts out as a comfortable, middle-class, smug mummy story but soon morphs into something a great deal more sinister. It focuses on a small clique of aspirational young marrieds who mostly know each other from the school gate. They help each other out with emergency childcare and provide eager, listening ears over coffee or glasses of wine. They admire each other’s home projects aimed at increasing resale value as much as providing congenial living space. They share gossip and offer sympathy whilst feeling both superiority and resentment about their own lives.

Vicky Seagrove has three healthy children, a supportive and loving husband, and a newly renovated home, yet still she wants more. When she is tempted to indulge in an affair she shares this sordid secret with her best friend, Amber. Although promising to keep it to herself, Amber is not impressed with such behaviour. Vicky has everything Amber aspires to but cannot quite acquire. When Vicky’s poor judgement puts one of her children at risk, Amber decides she can use her friend’s fear of being found out, especially by her husband, to her advantage.

Amber and Vicky have been close since meeting at their first NCT class and are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. Amber is possessive of her friend and is piqued when Vicky spends time with Jenny, a young mum new to their neighbourhood. When Amber and Vicky both decide they would like to buy the same rundown house as a doer upper, their friendship is put under strain.

Vicky is naive and trusting but as dark undercurrents bubble to the surface even she begins to question Amber’s loyalty. She is shocked and embarrassed when her friend asks for help with a down payment. She does not anticipate that money is the least of her blessings that Amber intends to take.

Interspersed with the unfolding tale of potential domestic crisis is a story set eighteen years before. A young girl has lost her mother to a drugs overdose and ended up in care. She is uncomfortable with the family who foster her, fixating on her social worker as a potential parent. She finds that her desires are deemed unreasonable and her fears ignored.

The final third of the book is pure psychological thriller. The denouement is masterfully played. The outcome may be extreme, but in this rarefied world it seems love and loyalty rely on self interest. This is an engaging and darkly entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan. 

Gig Review: Launching Quieter Than Killing

Yesterday evening I attended the Book Launch for Sarah Hilary’s latest crime thriller, Quieter Than Killing (reviewed here). Held in one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, Toppings, it drew a large and friendly crowd. I was soon chatting to two Bristol based crime book reviewers who were unimpressed by my efforts to get there. Ladies, that 45 minute journey is only straightforward for those comfortable with driving a car…

Unusually for me I opted to settle at the back when we were invited to take our seats. Having attended several of Sarah’s events I wanted to take this opportunity to photograph the crowd.

Sarah opened proceedings by thanking her publisher, agent and family before reading from her book to a rapt audience. Alison Graham (@TVAlisonGraham), whose other claims to fame includes her work with the Radio Times, then asked an excellent range of questions.

Throughout the Marnie Rome series the plot arc of her foster brother Stephen, who murdered her parents when he was fourteen years old, is developed. Why did he do it?

Sarah talked of Stephen’s obsession with Marnie and the emptiness he feels, how Marnie fills a void in him, and that she got away. In Quieter Than Killing his predicament is presented in a way that draws a degree of sympathy from the reader. Sarah does not plot her books prior to writing so cannot say if or when his reasons for killing will be revealed.

Alison asked where Marnie Rome came from, and also the writing in general.

We were told that Marnie arrived fully developed and first appeared in a story that has not been published – thank goodness according to Sarah! She has always been scribbling stories but didn’t make any serious attempt to write until about fifteen years ago, starting with short stories and flash fiction. A friend told her that she had a dark streak and suggested she try her hand at the crime genre. Novel writing commenced six to seven years ago.

As this series has progressed Marnie has become softer, nicer. Sarah’s child has suggested that she kill Noah (cue gasps of horror from the audience) to explore the emotional impact on Marnie. No decisions have been made…

Sarah was asked why Marnie has a tattoo.

It is all about secrets. The quotes are from Albert Camus, who Sarah loves, although she smiled at how pretentious this can seem. She wanted Marnie to have chosen to undertake something painful, a youthful decision that she may, in later life, regret. At a book club event Sarah was taken to task about the cost “How could an 18 year old afford such an expensive procedure?” She would not reveal if she herself has a tattoo.

Sarah’s empathy and her ability to write children so well was commented on.

Her mother spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and Sarah was raised on her grandmother’s stories from this time, although they were told as interesting anecdotes, the full horror only being understood as she got older and learned more from history. It taught Sarah that stories can be multi-faceted.

 

Alison and Sarah – photo credit, the Twitter feed of author MG Harris (@RealMGHarris)

There was a discussion of London, where Sarah lived for eleven years, and of her fascination with Battersea Power Station. She has no plans to buy one of the modern apartments being built there – having Sting as a neighbour, with his noisy, tantric sex, was not appealing.

Sarah was asked if she would consider setting a book in Bath. The answer was no. Three severed feet have been found in the city in recent years. Local news outlets considered if these may be art installations or a student prank. There was no suggestion of a serial killer – as if such a thing could never happen in Bath. She may consider taking Marnie north though, perhaps to Cumbria.

Which contemporary crime writers does Sarah admire?

  • Mick Herron, whose Slough House series  is funny and clever.
  • Ali Land, whose debut, Good Me Bad Me, about a fifteen year old in care because her mother is a serial killer, is amazing.
  • Alex Marwood
  • Sabine Durrant
  • Jane Casey
  • Susie Steiner

Questions were invited from the audience and Sarah was asked if she would consider writing anything other than crime fiction.

She has an idea for a dark and twisty ghost story, although suspects it would be more of a novella. She has also considered a standalone psychological thriller. There are at least two more Marnie Rome books to come (my note – yay!).

Did Sarah know from the beginning that she would write a series?

This was always her hope. She wanted to take Marnie on a journey, developing the character as she was affected by her various experiences. Character is what matters. A diverse cast, especially in London, is a reflection of reality. Characters do not need to be nice to be compelling.

Good fiction is about raising questions in the reader’s mind. Crime fiction, and also young adult fiction, offer scope for exploring a wide range of social and political issues.

After the questions Sarah took time to chat to eager members of her audience who then cleared the counter of the enticing, new hardback editions of her book. A long queue formed for these to be signed at which point I took my leave. This was an excellent event and well worth that anxiety inducing drive.

Quieter Than Killing is published by Headline and is available to buy now.

Book Review: God Future

God Future, by David Quiles Guilló, is described on the publisher’s website not as a story but as a premonitory vision. It is an example of abstract literature which I would recognise as experimental prose. The book has no page numbers, chapters or headings. There are no capital letters and no punctuation. The stream of words can at times appear incoherent, yet by persevering there is meaning to be gleaned.

Its title page describes it as “a very strange book” and it is dedicated “to everyone who will never attempt to read it”. I did. As an ordinary if voracious and somewhat eclectic reader, these are my thoughts.

There are three entities interfacing, named as one, two and three. Whatever conciousness they have is related as system process. Thoughts are streamed as they reshape concepts to search out meaning. It reads as a mixtape of mind riddles, an attempt to make sense of human living.

To go outside is to downgrade a firewall. Misunderstandings are unsolved equations. Death is a device lost. Interactions require synchronicity and compatibility. Secure connections are advised. Hackers abound. There is a warning to “be very careful when downloading feelings”. There is much superfluous code.

Upsets in relationships require reboots but without reconfiguration data traffic may cause further system crashes. There can be “strong emotional reactions as updates occur”. Single player mode is possible but rare in the longterm. Sound is everywhere, silence loud. The presentation of a device can be altered but matters less than software.

This is the “doomed human condition” described in technology speak. There is depth to the ideas presented if one can extract them from the conceptual narration. In this I would say I was partially successful.

In many ways I approached this book as I would poetry – trying to work out what is going on, what is clever and what hopelessly opaque to someone with my abilities. When I had finished I checked to see how it is described elsewhere. The author writes that his book is:

“The apocalyptic view that the only three living entities are the ones that survived inside the autonomous internet of things, and where fate of consciousness relies on them to communicate, and communication depends in figuring out how to use all the data that humans left behind many centuries ago.”

I had understood some of this, although figuring out how to make sense of many of the convoluted strings of words was at times a challenge. It is an interesting idea and a strangely satisfying puzzle to attempt to solve. It is not by any stretch an easy read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Gone Without A Trace

Gone Without A Trace, by Mary Torjussen, is a psychological thriller that takes a while to get going but ends up packing an almighty punch. Set in and around the Wirral Peninsula in Northern England, its protagonist is a young and ambitious professional woman, Hannah, who lives with her boyfriend, Matt, and socialises with a group of similarly minded friends. She is closest to Katie who she has known since childhood. They have a competitive relationship, likening themselves to the sisters neither of them have.

When the book opens Hannah is returning from a training course in Oxford where she has been commended by her employers for her recent performance and told to expect the promotion she has been working towards for some time. Happy and excited she is eager to share this news with Matt, picking up champagne on her way home to enable them to celebrate. After a long drive she opens their front door and immediately realises something is wrong. Every trace of Matt’s occupation has been removed. She has been left no explanation.

What follows is shock, distress, despair and then determination. Hannah discovers that Matt’s phone number is no longer available. He has left his job and removed himself from all social media. He has not just left her but also disappeared. She can find no one who knows where he has gone.

Hannah will not give up. She sets out to track Matt down, believing if she can talk to him he will want to return. Her work suffers and her friends worry but she refuses to be deterred. When she starts to receive texts from unknown numbers and realises that someone has been in her house when she is not there, she believes Matt is behind the intrusion and will not be persuaded otherwise.

I couldn’t empathise with this Hannah. For a successful, professional woman she seemed blinkered and irritatingly unable to face reality. She did not seek time off work despite recognising her performance was now well below par. I struggled to push through this section of the book.

The shocking explanation, when it eventually came, made sense of most of what had gone before. The pace picked up, the tension rose and the denouement was impressively constructed with a chilling finish.

Narrated in the first person, this was not a comfortable read but explores interesting topics. Before knowing why, Hannah’s dogged determination to find Matt and the personal cost she seemed willing to pay came close to making me set the book aside. I am glad that I persevered.

I am somewhat reluctant to recommend a book that I struggled with in part, yet the ending made the reading worthwhile. There are complex issues to ponder, not least how much support friends can be expected to offer. Once understood, Hannah is a fascinating creation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Deadly Game

Deadly Game, by Matt Johnson, is the second book in the author’s Robert Finlay series of crime thrillers. I review its predecessor, Wicked Game, here. This latest instalment contains all the intrigue and adrenaline inducing action that made the first book so compelling. It is another ‘just one more chapter’ type of read.

There are a large cast of characters to get to know from the army, police, and intelligence services as well as the victims and bad guys central to the action that unfolds. The theme is one of international sex trafficking but includes an investigation into historical middle eastern terrorist activity, with a potential link to Finlay’s past.

The story opens in Romania where a cold and hungry young village woman is putting herself forward for a lucrative job in the city. This offers an explanation as to how traffickers obtain their human cargo. The action then jumps forward a couple of years to the aftermath of 9/11 and the final report into events recounted in Wicked Game. A job must be found for Finlay who is suffering PTSD. He has crossed the radar of both MI5 and MI6. The police consider him a liability.

To get him back to work Finlay is assigned to a new unit being set up by The Met to investigate European sex trafficking. With no experience in the CID he is not a popular recruit. When one of his first assignments results in the discovery of a murder victim he is able to demonstrate his particular talents. He is also recognised by a suspect which puts him in danger.

The early background and scene setting chapters felt bitty in places but this was soon overcome as the ongoing action and pace of progression ensured reader engagement was grasped and maintained. The twists and turns were masterfully presented engineering doubts over who could be trusted and what their end game might be.

Unlike many in this genre I warmed to the protagonist. There are also a slew of strong female characters, there for their skills rather than for the men to win or save.

A full-flavoured addition to a series that I look forward to following further. This was an immersive and entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Deadly Game Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

Deadly Game is published by Orenda Books.

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