Book Review: Pseudotooth

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Pseudotooth, by Verity Holloway, is one of the most unusual books that I have read in a while. It explores the effects of trauma and the crossover between dreams and reality. It asks the reader to consider what they would define as real when ‘pseudo’ events have an impact on everyday life.

The protagonist is seventeen year old Aisling who has been raised by her mother, Beverley, after her father left his pregnant, teenage girlfriend in the care of his maiden aunt, Edythe, and disappeared forever from their lives. They have had little to do with any family members since Aisling was a young child. Beverley, a secretary, is concerned about how she and her daughter are perceived and is struggling to deal with the health issues Aisling is currently facing.

For the past couple of years Aisling has suffered blackouts and seizures. She has submitted to a plethora of tests and spent time in psychiatric care but still no cause can be found. When a doctor suggests her condition may be psychosomatic Beverley loses patience. She cannot cope with the way her daughter looks – emaciated with messy hair, grubby clothes and no apparent desire to improve her life or appearance – and after so long trying to find a solution wishes to move on with her own life. Beverley’s boyfriend has asked her to move in with him. When the doctor suggests that Aisling may benefit from a change of scenery Beverley arranges for her to go and stay with Edythe at the old rectory where the now elderly lady has lived all her life.

Aisling wishes to please her mother and desperately wants to get well. She is frightened by the effects of her illness, exhausted from her inability to sleep restfully, drained by constant nausea that prevents her from holding down food. She packs little for her stay in rural Suffolk – the diary where she writes down her dreams as her doctor suggested, and a volume of poetry by William Blake whose dark words bring her comfort.

Edythe treats her great niece with contempt. She values cleanliness and order as on a par with godliness, the personal problems she believes Aisling has allowed to fester as something that can be sorted with strict rules and determination. Edythe’s brother, Robert, is also being cared for at the rectory. He is kind to Aisling but the secrets he shares with her about the old building’s past start merging with her dreams.

Aisling’s dreams have for some time featured a young man named Feodor. Her diary recounts in detail his often violent history. When a shadowy version of him appears to her whilst awake, around the time she discovers a priest hole in the rectory cellar, her world’s collide. Another young man, Chase, who she met briefly in the rectory garden, emerges as a dream time friend. She becomes a part of his world, a post apocalyptic existence where those deemed unfit and undesirable are made to disappear.

The trauma that triggered Aisling’s illness is touched upon but she has dissociated events, tried and failed to wash the stain of them away. Although she is aware that the world she is currently inhabiting is a dream she is unsure how to return to waking life in the rectory, or even if this is something she wishes to achieve given the happiness she has discovered here. In confronting the dangers faced by Feodor and Chase she learns more of terrible events that took place in the rectory, which Edythe cannot allow to be talked of for fear they besmirch her memories of her revered father. It becomes clear that Aisling’s demons have also been suppressed.

Although vividly portrayed and well written it took me some time to engage with the plot. Many of the early sections of the book are bleak, Aisling’s situation painful to contemplate. By halfway through the pace had picked up and I raced through the final third eager to know what came next. The adventure is fantastical, but then dreams are subject to a different concept of reality, whether dreamt awake or asleep.

This is an unusual fantasy adventure grounded in the dark realities of mental illness and escapist imagination. It is a sometimes challenging but ultimately worthwhile read.

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

Book Review: Metronome

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Metronome, by Oliver Langmead, is a fantasy adventure story that takes the reader inside the world of dreams. Its protagonist is William Manderlay, a retired sailor and musician living in a care home in Edinburgh. He and his friend Valentine, a distinguished old soldier, spend their days coping with the indignities of ageing. When Manderlay talks of the vivid dreams he increasingly suffers his friend ascribes them to a muddle of memories, over-stimulated imagination and indigestion.

Manderlay’s dreams take him back to his youth, to happy times spent with his late wife, Lily. Often though they then descend into nightmares, to pursuit by beings he believes to be lepers or huge creatures that cannot feasibly exist. He is aware that he is dreaming but this does little to diminish his distress.

In one such dream he meets a strange young soldier who introduces himself as March. He is a Sleepwalker, a nightmare hunter capable of disintegrating the monsters Manderlay must face. He gives Manderlay a compass and explains how he may traverse this world through doorways that will take him to the Capital. There they arrange to meet.

The dreams Manderlay walks through include other dreamers who he is instructed not to assist. If the dangers they face become too difficult to bear then they will wake and be gone from this world. The same would happen to Manderlay, but if he is to help March defeat the increasingly disturbing nightmares then he must remain asleep.

What follows is the unfolding of a quest to reach an island beyond storms where a Nightmare King has been imprisoned. Manderlay holds the map to this place in the music he makes. Competing Sleepwalkers and other beings are determined to reach it to fulfil their own ends. Battles must be fought with weapons forged through wit and faith.

As with the best fantasy stories the strength of this tale is in the underlying interpretation left to the reader to decipher. The layers and depths wind and intersect through a plethora of fantastical locations and creations. The imagery evokes the contrasting colours of challenge, order and reworked experiences. In dreams it would seem the barely possible may be achieved.

Such an unusual narrative is hard to explain but this is a highly readable adventure leading to a satisfying conclusion. Its originality is such that it adds to the appeal without descending into the absurd. Although I wondered at times how elements would interweave the puzzle was completed without contrivance. An enjoyable and fulfilling read.

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

Book Review: Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods

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Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods is the second book in a series of fantasy adventure stories aimed at middle grade children (ages 8-12). It is a delight for any age to read. Written by Tania Del Rio and illustrated by Will Staehle, it mixes an almost comic book style presentation with double column text. The book is a near square shape with an eye-catching, gothic design – truly, the aesthetics deserve appreciation.

The story told is a deliciously dark take on old style fairy stories. It features a small and somewhat ugly, twelve year old hero determined to do his forebears proud. There are wicked witches, talking trees, a snake oil salesman and loyal friends with intriguing powers. Warren must solve riddles, decipher codes, and save the lives of monsters who threaten to cook him over an open fire. All the while he is trying to ensure that his beloved inheritance, the Warren Hotel, survives that he may humbly serve its guests as did the twelve Warrens before him.

warren-final-cover-web   warrenhotel

The first book in the series, Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, ended with the discovery that, amongst the many secrets hidden within the run-down and ominous looking hotel, were a set of mechanical legs which enabled it to, quite literally, rise up and walk away. The sequel opens with the hotel restored to its former glory, travelling around the land of Fauntleroy filled with delighted guests – until a malfunction causes it to trip and fall over. Disgruntled and dismissive of apologies, the guests demand refunds and abandon the now sideways building. When Warren goes in search of a potion to put right the controls, the hotel is hijacked by a doppelganger intent on delivering it to a powerful witch who has offered a reward to anyone who brings it to her lair – a mile wide crater known as the Black Caldera.

As the hotel marches through the dangerous Malwoods towards the Dark Queen, Warren determines to follow it on foot. He discovers that his hotel is not the only thing Her Royal Darkness wishes to control. To thwart her wicked plans he must face every danger lurking within the shadows of the mysteriously damaged wood. There are bats and snakes, whisperings in a forgotten language, and hungry creatures who must kill to survive. The wood is home to witches intent on freeing their peers, captured by Warren’s friends and hidden within the travelling hotel.

The book is due for release in the spring of 2017 so my copy was an early proof with the artwork representative but incomplete. Nevertheless, it is clear that this is going to be a stunning addition to any imaginative child’s library. The humour and play on words adds to the enjoyment for all ages. If you are a fan of Tim Burton’s films, or of the Unfortunate Events series of books, you should seek out these stories.

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

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, is the first book in a trilogy exploring the world of children born with apparently impossible gifts. These include an invisible boy, a levitating girl, twins with incredible strength and a girl who can conjure up fire with her hands. Because common people cannot comprehend these peculiars, and what is not understood is often feared, the children live apart. Their well-being is overseen by a shape shifting matriarch who can manipulate time.

Into this world stumbles Jacob, a sixteen year old American boy who has always struggled to fit in amongst his peers. When a family tragedy sends him into a spiral of anxiety and recurring nightmares his psychiatrist suggests it may be helpful if he travelled to the place he associates with the source of his fears – a remote island off the coast of Wales where his grandfather lived as a child. Jacob’s grandfather raised him on a diet of weird and wonderful stories which he claimed were true. They were populated by children who could not exist, who lived together on this island in a beautiful house. They were threatened by the monsters Jacob sees in his dreams, which his grandfather talked of but was never believed.

When Jacob sets out to uncover the facts around his grandfather’s early life he finds only a ruin where the children’s home used to be. He looks for clues amongst the debris, asking questions of the locals. He uncovers more than he bargained for, but must then make a choice, just as his grandfather did so many years before.

The writing remains light despite the horrific occurrences threatening the peculiar children’s way of life. Jacob and his new friends must battle forces intent on their demise whilst keeping their existence hidden from those common people living alongside. Their enemies are known to hide in plain sight.

The story is being adapted for a film, directed by Tim Burton, to be released on 30th September 2016. It is a perfect match for the director’s style. Although containing many of the familiar elements in a young adult fantasy, there is much offbeat humour downplaying the fear and poignancy.

Within the narrative are scattered authentic vintage photographs depicting many of the characters. These provide a wonderful addition to the surreal feel. There are also stills from the film and a taster of the next book in the series.

An enjoyable read and an interesting take on a familiar trope. I rarely seek out film adaptations of books as they too often disappoint. Given the strong visual elements and stunning imagery conjured, this may well will be an exception.

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

Book Review: Ace of Spiders

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Ace of Spiders, by Stefan Mohamed, is the second book in a planned YA fantasy trilogy which began with Bitter Sixteen. Since I read that first book last month I have been pestering the publisher eagerly waiting for this installment. It did not disappoint.

The protagonist, Stanly Bird, is now eighteen years old. He has remained in London and continues to work at Skank’s comic book store. He is also bored. After fighting the child abducting monster his life has returned to that of a normal, geeky teenager. With his powers continuing to grow he feels wasted on normalcy. The empowered friends with whom he lodges disagree. They believe that if their superpowers were revealed to the public they would be endangered, that the authorities would wish to use them for their own ends. Their run in with the secretive Angel Group confirmed their worst fears and they want nothing to do with that way of life so choose to lie low.

When a contract killer attempts to murder Stanly his friends demand that he remains indoors until they can uncover who was behind the attack. Stanly is unwilling to comply. He sneaks out at night, flying around the city and beyond. Just as it looks as though his friends may be losing patience with him more sinister developments demand all of their attentions. The Angel Group has returned to their radars and this may not be the only monster that the empowered are required to fight.

As with the first in the series the appeal of this book is the humour and wit of the writing. Stanly Bird is not the brightest bulb in the box, although his powers are undoubtedly impressive and great fun to consider. He is all the more likeable because of his flaws. His temper and tendency to daydream add to the authenticity, his awkwardness invites empathy.

Brought up alongside computer games, who wouldn’t dream of fighting the baddies if given the power of flight and telekinesis? The problem for Stanly and his friends is working out who the baddies are and what a handful of individuals can actually achieve, especially when the rest of London wishes to be left alone to go about their everyday lives.

The plot twists and turns as monsters rise from the depths, motivations within the Angel Group are revealed, and increasing numbers of empowered people are discovered. When the lives of those he loves are threatened Stanly must decide how far he is willing to go, if he is willing to kill more than just the monsters.

The denouement was a roller coaster of battles, destruction, switching allegiances and the awesomeness of mind control. The author has created a hero with powers a reader can only dream about, and then demonstrates how difficult it would be to live with them. He also has fun showing some of what could be done.

A rollicking good ride that I flew through and now desire more. This is impressive, entertaining, addictive stuff.

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

Book Review: Bitter Sixteen

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Bitter Sixteen, by Stefan Mohamed, is the first book in a proposed fantasy trilogy for young adults. It introduces the reader to Stanly Bird, a cynical schoolboy who discovers on his sixteenth birthday that he has gained the powers of flight and telekinesis. As his closest companion is a talking beagle this is daunting but not as surprising as it might have been for someone else.

Stanly is a perceptively written, introspective teenager, a loner who has cultivated a brooding, mysterious persona that enables him to keep his peers at bay. His parents worry about his lack of friends but Stanly believes that they have enough problems of their own and has little patience with such concerns.

Having grown up alongside the fictional worlds of superheroes and computer games Stanly questions how he should use his new and burgeoning abilities. Living in a remote Welsh town there seems little scope for saving the world. He is also aware that it would be dangerous to let others know of his powers. He has no wish to be studied for scientific purposes or forced to fight for those with an agenda of their own.

Just as it seems that Stanly’s personal life may be looking up he is forced to flee to London where he discovers that he is not the only person with superpowers. He also discovers that his abilities are not as secret as he had believed. Thanks to his new friends he finds work in a comic book store. He battles monsters, both human and supernatural. He must also circumvent the adults who see him as a bad influence on his girl.

What sets this book apart from others in the genre is the quality and style of the writing. Stanly is a fabulous creation and is presented with such wit and humour that his exploits are a joy to read. Having superpowers is weird, dangerous but also fun, especially the flying bit.

Although written for young adults I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, proving once again that a good book is for any reader. The denouement was poignant but fitting; the story is concluded but I am so glad that there is a second book in this series due soon. Stanly Bird is not a character I wish to say goodbye to yet.

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

 

Book Review: Stone Keeper

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Stone Keeper, by Beth Webb, is the fourth book in the author’s Star Dancer Quartet, a fantasy series for young adults set during the Roman invasion of Britain. Fear and treachery are rife, and the old ways of the druids are being swept aside. I reviewed book one herebook two here and book three here.

The protagonist, Tegen, is now sixteen years old, pregnant and, following the slaughter of her people on Mona, riding across the troubled land to help a rebel force lead by the blood thirsty Boudica. Tegen has lost faith in the Mother Goddess and harbours a deep anger following the pointless sacrifice of her beloved husband, Tonn.

Boudica and Tegen dislike each other on sight but the young druid has promised to help the queen, and her magical powers prove useful in battle. The demon which was released in book one continues to stalk Tegen, feeding on her despair and anger at the deaths of so many she has loved.

Tegen’s powers have grown but not, it would seem, her wisdom. The personal loss she has endured blinds her to the cyclical nature of her actions. War breeds hatred which begets more war. It is a lesson that modern day governments, with their desire for power at whatever cost despite history teaching how short lived it will be, seem blind to as well.

Boudica leads a combined force of British fighters intent on crushing the Roman invasion but with little understanding of how to deal with their enemy’s strict discipline in battle. As Boudica’s followers move from town to town Tegen tries to limit the senseless slaughter of those too young or old to fight in the towns they take back, but there is little appetite among the warriors for leniency as they remember the havoc the Romans left in their conquering wake.

As the showdown between the opposing sides approaches, Tegen begins to realise that her battle is not with the Romans but with the forces of hate which manifest as the demon which pursues her. At the final reckoning, to fulfil her destiny, it would seem she must give up her child.

I found this book the most difficult of the four to read, especially when trying to appreciate how it would be received by its target audience. The tale is of a country at war, the futility of battles that do little more than perpetuate suffering, death and destruction. Those who survive seek vengeance which they wreak with the same cruelty as those whose actions they claim to need to avenge. Through my middle aged eyes it all seemed so recognisable and pointless. The young adults this book is written for will not have had that life experience so perhaps it is a story they may learn from.

The demons of hate can never be contained whist men are willing to act as their vessels. In our world, as in Tegen’s, too many seem ready to trade integrity for personal gain. Those who seek to do good can inadvertently cause harm when they believe that the end justifies the means. Mother Goddess is the earth on which all creatures reside. When we live lives that show respect for her, taking only what we need and sharing her bounty, we help all her creatures, and that includes ourselves.