Fishing for Stones – a review

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Fishing for Stones
by Glen R. Stansfield

Purchase copies here

1990. When Steve learns of a diamond deal taking place in the Scottish Highlands, he comes up with an audacious plan to steal them. He and his close friend Andy risk their lives to snatch the stones from under the noses of a London gangster and a Major from the Angolan rebel army, UNITA. Close on their heels is DCI Macintyre of Grampian Police. Taking place against the backdrop of a country torn apart by civil war, and the beauty of the Scottish wilderness, the action reaches a surprising conclusion. There can only be one winner. Or can there?

Absorbing, a well-spun read…

…an intriguing blend of greed and opportunity, with a couple of main characters dancing precariously on the edges of the law, melds into this well-spun debut novel… throw in a stash of diamonds of questionable moral source, absorbing helicopter scenes, the hint of high-level criminal double-crossing, and the picturesque setting of the Scottish Highlands… mix well, and bring slowly to the boil… a droll, dry-humoured Scots detective tracks down the execution of a well-planned crime…or is it?… great read, Mister Stansfield…

Cheers!
Seumas Gallacher
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Glen R. Stansfield and Seumas Gallacher have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

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Yesterday Road – a review

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Yesterday Road
by Kevin Brennan

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A coming-of-old-age beauty, destined to become a classic…

It isn’t often that the sheer beauty of a novel stuns me to such a degree that I’m unable to put into words just how lovely and richly satisfying it is. Describing Yesterday Road is like trying to put into words how I feel when I witness the most beautiful of sunsets or hear the power of crashing ocean surf. How do you describe the fragrance of a rose? You can’t. You must experience it for yourself.

Part of the magic of this novel is the way that it unveils and embraces the strength and tenacity of the human spirit. We all want to believe that good things come to those of us who do the right thing, no matter what the temptations we encounter as we travel through this life. We want good things to happen to the people of the world who struggle and strive and always take the high road. We are cheerleaders for those around us who are weak, fragile, delicate, and endangered. This novel is filled with heart and humor, pathos, and humanity. It is rich with tender moments that grab you and won’t let you go. It’s been a long time since I finished a novel and stared at the wall in amazement at what I’d just experienced. Kevin Brennan’s stunning writing grabs your soul like that of J.D. Salinger, Silas House, and Wiley Cash.

Rebecca Heishman
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Kevin Brennan and Rebecca Heishman have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Dog! A Novella – a review

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Dog! A Novella
by Mike Robbins
published by Third Rail Books 2015, paperback, 128 pages

Purchase copies here

If I told you that a book made me cry, would that stop you from reading it? If so, let’s just pretend I didn’t say that. What? Cry? Me? A book so moving that it reduced me to blubber and caused me to open up the Cupboard of Treats and start handing out biscuits to my own dog, speaking of blubber if not of reduction? I never said any such thing! In fact, this entire paragraph is just the product of your imagination. It never happened at all.

Dog! is an absolutely perfect novella; perfect in character, profound in meaning, masterful in plotting and shred in pace. It is everything that smart writing is meant to be about in that this fictional story of a rescue dog expresses a quite literally life-changing theme yet does so without once losing sight of the fact that a writer’s first duty is to entertain the reader.

A slight confession: I had not heard of Mike Robbins until his publicist sent me a well-written email asking if I’d take a peeky-weeky at her client’s book. To be honest, she had me at the title. One of the very first full-length books I remember reading as a child was Farley Mowat’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and in the intervening decades I’ve rather hoped that someone somewhere might write another book about a dog that would nuzzle at my heart in the same way as Mowat’s old spaniel Mutt. Old Yeller didn’t do it for me as the dog was a supporting character, and even the massive bestseller The Incredible Journey (whose author Sheila ‘Bunny’ Burnford used to summer a few miles away from me) had to have a cat along for the ride. Good books both of them, but neither one made me want to hug the covers tight to my chest when the last lines were read. That had to wait until now.

Robbins, I see from the descriptions at the back of Dog! and of his other books is a British journalist who has spent nearly thirty years abroad in Asia, North Africa and South America. The great benefit that comes with a career as a working journalist is the refinement of the clean, sharp style that editors demand in order to meet the limitations of page space. Hemingway of course was the Grand Master of this and will forever be pointed to as the artist that journos should aspire towards. The author of Dog! does not need to take a back seat to Hemingway, and that there’s some mighty fine praise.

The plot can be limned out in a very short sentence. A rescue dog, at least part Border Collie, is adopted by a middle-aged man and both discover truths about existence. Those truths are about Buddhist concepts of reincarnation as well as the indestructibility of souls. I fear I might be losing some of you with that idea, so let me quickly explain with a quote from Dog!:

“Thus,” he intoned, “while form changes place and circumstance, it itself cannot possibly be annihilated, since spiritual substance is no less real than material. So only outer forms change and are destroyed, since they are not things, but are ‘of things’; they are not substance, but accidents and circumstances of substance.”

“What?” said Richard.

“You should know,” said Bazza. “You’re the materialist. That’s Bruno in De la causa, principio et uno. Written in London. In 1584.”

This happens to fit my own philosophical leanings perfectly. It seems to me that if everything in the known universe emerged from the Big Bang, then there was just as much stuff then as there is now or as there will be either in a billion years or a week from this Tuesday. Stuff can be transformed, but it cannot be truly destroyed. Finally, if sentience is an outcome of certain combinations of stuff – human thoughts, or animal thoughts – then thought itself and therefore memory retain an indestructibility. You don’t have to take my word for it. Scant days before this review was written, Pope Francis announced that animal souls can indeed go to Heaven. That announcement came from the same Vatican that had poor old Giordano Bruno, quoted above, burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600. So in other words, he eventually won his case on appeal.

The passage I quoted is the only ‘heavy’ – albeit necessary – part of the whole novella. By the time this discussion rolls around, you will already be charmed by the Dog’s remembrances of his previous life, specifically events that took place around the time of the Blitz in World War Two. I won’t explain more, as if there was ever a book I didn’t want to ruin with too much peeking behind the curtain, this is the one.

The absolute best of it is what seems the simplest element. I believed in the dog. Dog (who doesn’t get a specific name until two-thirds of the way through the novella) acts as a dog acts. And believe you me, I know the actions and the logic of a Border Collie much, much better than I do that of humans. They are independently dependent, lovingly in charge and vigilantly relaxed … just like the one warming my toes as I type this.

In sum, there are some books that one admires, others are respected, a very few are treasured. Dog! is a book to be loved.

Be seeing you.

Hubert O’Hearn
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Since writing this review, Hubert has also interviewed Mike in a 30-minute podcast for Thoughts Comments Opinions on the San Diego Book Review site.

Both Mike Robbins and Hubert O’Hearn have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Island in the Clouds – a review (2)

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Island in the Clouds
by Susan M. Toy

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Murder Mystery on Bequia

I’ve been a fan of Susan Toy and her Reading Recommendations blog for some time now, and was lucky enough to receive a signed copy of Island in the Clouds, which had been on my to-read list.

Island in the Clouds is a murder mystery set on the small Caribbean island of Bequia. Geoff, an expat with a hidden past, finds a dead body in the pool of one of the properties he manages. Though reluctant, Geoff knows if he doesn’t solve the murder himself, the local, inept police force will make a mess of things, maybe even exposing some secrets he’d rather keep hidden.

Toy has crafted believable characters with colourful personalities, and her skill is not limited to the main characters—I also thoroughly enjoyed the Rasta Brethren who work for Geoff, the old biddies, and even the inept police. The plot moves swiftly, with the requisite twist or two, and Toy’s writing is a pleasure to read.

Reading Island in the Clouds feels like being on a guided tour of Bequia. In fact, I think I’d now know where to catch Al’s plane or one of the two ferries. After I arrived on island, I’d grab a quick roti for lunch then head over to Bob’s for a rum and some local flavour. I’m sure I’d recognize Mike, and him being such a good sport and all, it wouldn’t take much to convince him to take me along in his dinghy for a sundowner on the dock over at Geoff and Angie’s boathouse. And if Gus were there for me to pat, I’d feel like my trip was complete.

If you’d like to get to know Bequia, and you enjoy murder mysteries, you’ll enjoy Island in the Clouds.

J.P. McLean
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

J.P. McLean has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

The Violin Man’s Legacy – a review

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The Violin Man’s Legacy
by Seumas Gallacher

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Like retired footballers turning trainer, this story is about the professional soldiers, SAS and mercenaries, who retire into the security business, bringing their expertise in organised violence to the protection of legitimate businesses.

The main characters are solitary individuals, often with a personal tragedy in their baggage. This is a very shady world, where instant decisions are made about who dies and how, leaving no time for agonising over the whys and the wherefors. Morally, it’s all very easy, with few attacks of remorse afterwards. Bodies are left for the bin men to collect, and the killers of friends are tracked down remorselessly, just on the margins of legality, but with the connivance of the police.

I found myself turning the pages, hoping the characters on the ‘good’ side would not get hurt, and hoping the ‘bad’ guys would get what was coming to them. The action jets around the world, with some nice descriptions, that range from Jack’s poverty-stricken childhood in Glasgow, to the exotic brilliance of Hong Kong. The ends are all tied up in a believable way, leaving the reader with a couple of South American vignettes that stick in the mind long after the story ends. This isn’t a novel that seeks to deliver moral judgements. It’s about camaraderie and friendship. Recommended to anyone who enjoys thrillers with the emphasis on people rather than politics or espionage.

Jane Dougherty
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Seumas Gallacher and Jane Dougherty have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Long Change – a review

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Long Change
by Don Gillmor

Purchase copies here

From the jacket flap:
Fleeing his violent, Pentecostal father, as well as a crime he committed in the parking lot of the first bar he ever entered, Ritt Devlin leaves Texas at fifteen, crossing the border into Alberta. Big for his age, he soon finds work on an oil rig on the outskirts of Medicine Hat. But that’s not the life he wants, and he saves up to study geology. By the time he’s in his early twenties he’s the head of his own oil company.

Spanning almost seventy years, and following the geology and politics of oil from Texas to the Canadian oil patch, to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, various political capitals, and the Arctic, Long Change is divided into three parts, each of them framed by one of Ritt’s marriages.

My review:
I chose to read this book because it was recommended on Goodreads and Reading Recommendations.

I found it to be an interesting read and easy to read. I was curious to see what the writer would say about the oil industry, some call ‘dirty oil’. The oil industry has always given people hope. Hope to strike it rich, hope for a different life. It is no different today.

I liked how the writer developed Ritt’s character. As a child, Ritt was physically and emotionally abused but he grew up to be ambitious and compassionate. He faced many challenges trying to reach his goals in the oil industry and did not give up his dreams.

I really appreciated the writer did not go into tremendous and unnecessary details on bedroom scenes. I’m not a prude. Even when I read the occasional romance novel, I skip the silly sexual, over-to-top, bottom, anticipation, climax drama. Writers should leave that to the reader’s imagination. But, I’m likely in the minority here.

When Ritt became lost in his grief, it made me wish his guardian angel would help him find his way back to life. I did not want him to give up.

The ending left me feeling empty and sad, because of all the main character had been through, which is a testament, I think, to Gillmor’s good writing. Ritt lived a long life and he met many people along the way: some were adversaries, some believed in his dreams, some just came along for the ride. At the end, he was a hollow trunk of a tree.

Do I recommend Long Change by Don Gilmor? Absolutely! How many stars? I hate giving stars I just say to anyone – man, or woman … read it. And you don’t need to be a geologist!

When I read a book, I hope to become engaged. I ask myself, why was this title chosen? What is it with so many characters, hard to keep up with this Jack and that Tom and who was Jack back chapters ago? What will happen next, what will the ending be? I ask myself lots of questions. But sometimes I ask, “will there be a sequel?” This is one of those books.

Violet Gaspe

Don Gillmor has previously been promoted on Reading Recommendations.

This Plague of Days-Omnibus Edition – a review

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This Plague of Days OMNIBUS EDITION: The Complete Three Seasons of the Zombie Apocalypse Series
By Robert Chazz Chute

Purchase copies here

Hungry?

You won’t be after you read this. A trilogy featuring zombies would not normally be on my to-read list, but this story is much more than zombies; it’s a study in human behaviour.

I follow Robert Chazz Chute’s blog so was familiar with his titles and interested in learning more about the autistic-spectrum boy at the centre of TPOD. That’s why I jumped at the chance to pick up This Plague of Days-Omnibus Edition during a promotion. The Omnibus edition includes all three seasons of the trilogy.

I can’t sum it up better than the author. “A killer virus ends the world as we know it. It’s up to one autistic boy to fight for the future and save us all.”

Despite the horrors in TPOD—and there were bucketfuls—the love and familial connection of the Spencer family were admirable. I loved that Chute explored the potential of Jamie’s autism and particularly liked how Anna and Jack’s characters grew. In fact, I found myself thinking about how my own family would fare in such a situation. For those who don’t live in a major earthquake-prone area of the world, Chute’s scenario may seem distant, but TPOD sure made me think about the “what-ifs.” Clearly, Chute has spent some time delving into the depths of humanity’s potential.

This epic journey is not an easy read, nor a short read, but I think it’s a thought-provoking and insightful story of humanity at its worst, its best and most importantly, its most hopeful. I would highly recommend This Plague of Days (even if zombies aren’t your thing).

J.P. McLean
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Robert Chazz Chute and J.P. McLean have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

No Good Deed – a review

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No Good Deed
by Tim Baker

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Kurt’s life is moving in the right direction for a change and he wants to keep it that way.

Al Godfrey has found the ticket that will save him from another winter on the streets of Atlantic City.

Candy’s boyfriend was murdered in a hotel bathroom and she needs answers to some strange questions.

Howard is a two bit Florida con-man looking for the next score.

All four of them are about to become linked in a bizarre hunt for two million in missing mob money.

My Review: When Al finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, his fortune suddenly changes. From living on the cold streets to living it up in Florida, Al is about to hit it big. He enlists the help of his new friend, Howard, but will he regret it? Kurt has hit rock bottom in the past, but he’s on his way to living a respectable and meaningful life. He’s made a choice to do the right thing, but will his new philosophy get him in trouble? When he meets Candy, a woman on a mission to discover her late boyfriend’s secrets, Kurt finds himself caught up in a situation that quickly spirals out of control.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. From the fast-paced plot to the well-drawn characters, No Good Deed was a book that kept my interest. In Al, Kurt, and Candy, the author has given us characters we can root for. Though most of us have never shared their experiences or faced the challenges they’re facing, the author has made them easy to relate to. The plot was tight, without a single hole I could find, and it’s obvious the author really did his research with this book. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Tricia Drammeh My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Tim Baker and Tricia Drammeh have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Dangerous Obsessions – a review

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Dangerous Obsessions
by Bob Van Laerhoven
(Anaphora Literary Press 2015, reviewed from hardcover) 74 pages

Purchase copies here

The effects of recognition sleep somewhere in the misty border lands between déjà vu and memory, a false security disrobed as fear. I first sensed it at quite a young age, the first time I ever went to London. Our house in Canada backed onto a one acre park planted thickly with trees that bordered along its narrow curving dirt paths forming glades and green hollows, with shadows cutting across the light. So there I was in Hyde Park, stood next to my mother and I looked up and saw, I thought, the park at home. That tree here and that tree there and those branches here and there looked exactly – exactly! – like one corner of that park in Canada. In that moment of recognition there was such an incredible compression of comfort, transportation, wonder, knowledge, objective and subjective thoughts all tumbled together like laundry in a dryer; all so remarkable that the trees in Hyde Park remain my most vivid childhood memory.

Books do that to you too, you know. The effect is not quite as startling as seeing familiar places in unfamiliar places because for one thing we’re older and smarter and for another, with books we’re consciously looking for links to readings past. It’s rather more akin to a date with a new and attractive woman when she stands a certain way or says a certain phrase and there you are – exactly! – in the same moment except it is in the past with a different beautiful woman.

Dangerous Obsessions by Bob Van Laerhoven had precisely that same delicious effect on me, echoing the music of sweet songs past. It is a thin book containing five short stories, just thin enough that I am willing to forgive its publisher for not numbering its pages and so making me count them up. The pages themselves may not be quite so forgiving as they now have damp wrinkles on their right upper corners where I flicked them with my licked index finger. Dear Publishers – Don’t do that again.

Malcolm Lowry only produced one complete novel during his adulthood – terminal alcoholism makes a man dead before his deadlines – but it was one hell of a novel. Under the Volcano is such a remorseless portrait of doom one can feel the stench of sulphur rising off each page. The effect was akin to reading Graham Greene while on acid. That was something I never tried – reading Graham Greene on acid – but I and its many fans have been looking for something like Under the Volcano ever since. I began reading Dangerous Obsessions and metaphorically turned around to look at Hyde Park and thought I’d been there before.

Doom is the great serpent of Fate and rare is the writer who dares get close enough to it to count its scales or allow himself the knowledge of how it feels when the serpent Doom wraps around the throat. For that is how Doom operates; it kills by a slow crushing of the larynx until the battle to draw a breath seems not worth the struggle. Doom is way beyond Fear. Fear is easy – a shock, a bite, sudden and severe but even when Fear kills it is done in as little time as it takes to light a cigarette. Doom and Fear both can kill the body, but Doom first kills the mind.

The Doomed reach a point before dying where choices, the weighing of morality become meaningless. However, knowing that Doom has won and so life is ending ends with one last choice – does one strike one last blow at the serpent, or perhaps hope it notices a meatier body nearby?

Bob Van Laerhoven has survived life among the Doomed. He has covered wars and revolutions and knows how humans behave when morality is as impossible and foreign as a parkland glade untouched within a battlefield. He writes of soldiers, thieves, and Holocaust victims; women willing to give their bodies to save their families, men willing to die to spite their killers. And he does all that in language so vivid that you will believe you have seen it all before.

Thirty bucks is one sweet hell of a price to pay for five short stories. On the other hand, I put it to you this way: What’s the difference between that fine butcher’s steak that makes you drool at the memory of its tender, full-fleshed taste and the regular grade hamburger you season and pound into patties before burying it under cheese, relish and a thick bready bun? They’re both just cow meat aren’t they? Dangerous Obsessions is reading for the reading gourmand. I’ve waited a goddam long time to run across a writer who can make me feel both eager and brave to turn each page and I’ve finally found one. I salute you Bob Van Laerhoven. Your work reminds me of a park I thought I saw.

Hubert O’Hearn
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Since writing this review, Hubert has also interviewed Bob in a 30-minute podcast for Thoughts Comments Opinions on the San Diego Book Review site.

Both Bob Van Laerhoven and Hubert O’Hearn have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Second Chance – a review

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Second Chance
by Dylan S. Hearn

Purchase copies here

Second Chance is thrilling and chilling. There is blood and gore, but it is the cold-blooded, or even bloodless aspect of British society that is really at the core of this story of a political system that controls everything even beyond the grave.

There are four distinct threads to the story as well as sub-stories, as murky as the crumbling cityscape. Each chapter adds a little more detail to one of the main threads, and as Dylan Hearn pulls in the threads, we begin to see through the murk to where they are all going. And it’s not a nice place, I can tell you.

The technical parts, the cloning and regeneration, the memories that are replaced in the new brain, or not, depending, seem perfectly feasible to a non-techy person like me. The idea of cheating death on the one hand, is balanced against the massacres committed by the forces of law and order on the other. Petty crime might have become rarer because of the intricate system of police surveillance and the instant data search system that has replaced the internet, but for those who can manipulate the cameras, the police, and the data collected and redisseminated, there are no limits to what horrors can be perpetrated and the evidence wiped out.

The pace is relentless, the tension maintained right the way through. I was completely caught up in the way Second Chance unfolded—expecting the worst each time I turned a page. Dylan Hearn plays with notions of morality and ethics as much as he does with science and technology and it soon becomes clear that our notions of right and wrong have become distinctly warped in this near future. The characters are real. They are in the main, not likeable, and of course, given the theme of the story, not necessarily even bona fide ‘real’ people.

If I were to compare Second Chance to another novel, I would choose PD James’ The Children of Men. This treats a similar theme, the world gone wrong, rotten and above all, insidiously untouchable at its centres of control. I highly recommend Second Chance as a thrilling and disturbing read.

Sometimes it’s good to be disturbed.

Jane Dougherty
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Dylan S. Hearn and Jane Dougherty have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.