Book Review – A Girl Called Ari by P. J. Sky

An easy and enjoyable read.

As a self-published author myself, I try to read books by other “indie” writers from time to time. Sadly, it is sometimes a disappointing experience. However, every now and then you come across a little gem. Happily, this was the case with A Girl Called Ari.

I first noticed this book on Twitter where the author noticeably works harder than most (not always an indicator of quality) to promote her work. Then when a friend, who also came across it on social media, recommended it as something I might enjoy, I decided to give it ago. I am after all, a sucker for a good dystopian tale!

The book tells the story of Starla, the daughter of the mayor of Alice, a fortress, futuristic city in the midst of a barren and dangerous post-apocalyptic wasteland. Starla is kidnapped (I’m still not entirely sure why and by whom) but escapes and is trying to make her way home. She comes across Ari, a girl of similar age but very different circumstance. Ari lives in a cave and, in contrast to the life of luxury and excess that Starla has enjoyed, has barely any possessions other than the clothes she is standing in. Ari is gritty and strong and knows better than most how to survive in the wastelands. However, we learn that this was not always the case as she too lived in the city at one point in her past.

And so, Ari gives up her cave, her horrible but sustaining job in the salt mines and her meagre possessions to help Starla get home, in the (vain?) hope that she will somehow enable Ari to re-enter the city.

What I liked:

I loved the imaginative but believable world-building and the contrast between the glittering riches of the city and the bleak barren wastelands which is mirrored by the starkly contrasting lives of the two girls. I assumed the book is set in Australia, due to the references to Alice and a location that sounds like Uluru (Ayers Rock). The rough dialect of the people of the wastelands could, to me, have been broad Australian and some of the characters the girls came across felt aboriginal to me. However, I could be wrong as the author is British. It might just have been my imagination that carried me down that route as the location is never made explicit.

I liked the main characters. Starla is irritating at first but, as the spoiled daughter of the mayor she knows no better and she does soften and become more likeable towards the end. Ari is great! I loved her and I can imagine her being an icon for young adult readers along the lines of Katniss from The Hunger Games or Beatrice from Divergent. I’d love to read more about her adventures and will make time to read the sequel, Ari Goes to War.

The development of the relationships between the two main characters is captivating. Its begins as one based purely on mutual need and both girls are participating in the arrangements because they have something to gain from it. However, it develops into a stronger relationship that verges on friendship throughout the various twists and turns of their journey.

Some of the descriptions of the environment are vivid and beautiful and at times I was totally immersed in Ari’s world.

Even better if:

The plot was predictable. It does have some surprises but, on the whole, I kind of expected everything that happened. (Starla getting bitten by a crocodile was a bit of a shocker though!) However, the book is aimed at a young adult audience and as such is arguably necessarily formulaic and slightly cliched at times.

Some of the big moments of the story and some of the action sequences were muted. They lacked that element of drama and impact that they could have brought to the reading experience. For example, “Then a huge gaped mouth, lined with a serration of jagged white teeth, emerged from the water and clamped down on Starla’s leg.” and “What is happening, thought Starla? It feels like an earthquake.”

There were sections of the book that dragged on and didn’t add value to the story either in terms of plot, word-building or character development. Some sections left me downright bemused and confused. For example, the message from the “dish”. This hinted at providing some background and some answers but fell just a little short of the mark for me in this respect.

I wanted some satisfying answers or explanations to various threads that were contained within the text. I accept that some of these may be addressed in later books in the series, but I was left with a lot of unanswered questions. For example, why was Starla kidnapped in the first place and was it an inside job? Could Ari be Starla’s half-sister? What was the significance of the broken piece of pottery with the blue bird on it? What sort of event caused the apocalypse – there is mention of both disease and a meteor and the strange star, Vella Stella?

All things considered, a fast-paced, easy and enjoyable read and a super first book from a talented (young?) writer. I look forward to seeing the development of her writing and so I’ll definitely be giving Ari Goes to War a go!

Book Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A struggle!

A Little Life purports to be about a diverse group of four young men, all recent graduates living in New York, who are about to begin their adult lives. The book follows their development into a group of, sometimes troubled, but ultimately immensely talented and successful men. However, what the book is really about is the life of Jude, a mentally and physically damaged and severely traumatised individual.

I found it a deeply disturbing and depressing read.

The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015 and has won countless awards and received multiple rave reviews from a variety of sources. Yanagihara has been compared to Donna Tart, one of my favourite writers. I feel as if I ought to have enjoyed it, or at least appreciated it, and expected to. But, honestly, I struggled to finish it, let alone enjoy it. It was a relief when it was finally over.

Maybe it’s me? Maybe I’m just not worthy or intellectual enough to “get” a book like this. I feel slightly nervous about sharing my opinions, which are in such stark contrast with those of so many literary experts, but that is what they are. Just my honest opinions. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it. However, for what it’s worth, it did leave me weeping.

What I liked:

I loved some of the descriptive prose and beautiful scene setting.

I loved the loyalty and kindness of Jude’s friends and family.

What I didn’t like:

The length – it was way too long in my opinion. I don’t mind a long read. In fact, if I’m really enjoying a book, I often don’t want it to end. But A Little Life was long in a rambling, repetitive way. It almost felt self-indulgent at times.

The chronology – The book twisted and turned in time and space, leaving me lost and confused on multiple occasions, as to who was talking and where and when they were. Sometimes I would be drawn into a scene that was interesting and intriguing, then it would drift into the past or the future for so long that I couldn’t remember whether the scene I had been enjoying had been concluded or what its meaning or relevance was.

The style – the book was very much all tell and no show. It broke all the supposed “rules of writing” about showing through dialogue and action, and being concise. When it did show, it did so largely through thought and memory. We always seemed to always be inside the head of one of the characters and never present in the moment itself.

The message – it was just so damned bleak, miserable and depressing. I can’t wait to read something more fun and uplifting.

I know I must seem shallow, irreverent and controversial, and maybe I am, but A Little Life just wasn’t for me.

Book Review – Absolutely Barbados by Julian Armfield

Absolutely wonderful!

I first picked up this book from the pile under the TV in Tamarack, the beautiful apartment we have rented for our last three months in Barbados during The Time of Covid. It looked interesting and I made a mental note to read it when I had finished the three books I had on the go at the time (Alias Grace by Margaret Attwood, Cell by Stephen King, and Life after Life by Kate Atkinson).

I picked it up again and put the other three to one side for a few days, when I found out that it was written by the husband of the sister of our lovely landlady, Jane, who lives in the apartment downstairs with her equally lovely husband, Elton.

I absolutely devoured this book. What a wonderful read! Entertaining, informative and utterly engaging, it tells the story of – I quote – ‘one man’s mission to discover the heart and soul of [the] Caribbean Paradise’ that is Barbados. Believe me, he does!

Written in an upbeat and humorous anecdotal style, it provides the reader with an insight into the history, customs and culture of Barbados and it’s people, from the perspective of a middle-aged (sorry Julian) Englishman who made the island his home a few decades ago, when he met and married Jane’s sister, Sue.

I loved reading his colourful perspective and thoughtful insights on places and experiences that we were already familiar with, just as much as finding out about other things to do and places to go that were new to us. I learned things I didn’t know, I nodded in agreement with things I did, and laughed out loud, at least once every couple of pages, at the laser sharp accuracy of his observations, constantly interrupting M from his own reading to read him a paragraph or two that had us both in stitches.

As well as a hilarious succession of amusingly instructive anecdotes, the book provides facts and figures about the history of Barbados, the do’s and don’ts of living (or visiting) the island, some tips on how to ‘talk like a Bajan’, and the author’s ‘Magnificent 7’ beaches, wonders, views, attractions and recipes.

In addition to being crammed with funny stories and observations from Julian’s experiences in Barbados, the book is also peppered with ‘flashbacks’ and anecdotes from Julian’s travels around the world during his lengthy career as a BBC racing correspondent for the World Service, and his fond memories of his former life in a sleepy Berkshire village.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is planning to come to Barbados, has been before, or is already here. It literally has something for everyone!

The Kindle Edition of Absolutely Barbados is available on Amazon for £4.57.

I was only halfway through Absolutely Barbados, when, just last week we were honoured to be invited to join in the author’s birthday celebrations at Chicken Rita’s, with Sue and Jane and a few of their friends. It was strange to meet the author of a book I was reading, especially as it was a biography! Even though we had never met, I felt as if I already knew him. It was such a relief to discover that he was as funny, sweet and charming in real life as he was on the written page! It was also lovely to see how, even after all his years here, he is still completely infatuated with his Caribbean Paradise.

Book Review – Cell by Stephen King


I’m not really sure about this one. I’m a big Stephen King fan and, for me, The Stand is one of the best post-apocalyptic books I’ve ever read, and, in my opinion, one of King’s best novels. I read it first in my 20’s, and again in my 60’s. I never wanted it to end.

I was, therefore, excited to read Cell and, with my penchant for Zombie fiction, full of mouth-watering expectation.

I was a little disappointed.

I liked:

The whole first half of the book.

The fast-paced and utterly believable first few chapters.

The characters. My favourites were the adorable Tom, and the wonderfully smart, brave and resilient little Alice.

The premise that mobile phones will fry your brains and that said brains are basically very sophisticated computers.

The suspense, the fear, the horror – all up to King’s usual standards.

The marvellous metaphors – “His cock swung from side to side like the pendulum of a grandfather clock on speed.”

The disturbing (but probably accurate) view of human nature – “What Darwin was too polite to say, my friends, is that we came to rule the earth not because we were the smartest, or even the meanest, but because we have always been the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle.”

I didn’t’ like:

The whole (unbelievable and nonsensical) second half of the book – pretty much from the appearance of the Raggedy Man onwards.

I just didn’t believe in what they were all doing and why. I didn’t understand the motives and actions of Clay and his friends and I didn’t understand the motives and actions of the “phone-people”.

It just wasn’t believable. You suddenly see your zombified ex-wife in the middle of 8,000 other zombies. You suddenly come across your zombified son, just sitting there, in the middle of nowhere, after he has miraculously survived the massacre of thousands of his kind. Really?

Compared to other King novels I have read and enjoyed; it all felt a bit thin. Unsatisfying.

I absolutely hated the ending. I thought it was lazy. I’d bloody well pushed through the unenjoyable second half to find out what had happened to Sharon and Johnny. I think he saw Sharon (but I wasn’t sure if he imagined it) and as for poor little Johnny – well! I felt cheated. I actually flicked back and forward on my Kindle in case I had missed a few pages – I couldn’t believe it! After all that? Stephen! How could you?

Book Review – The Terror by Dan Simmons

Epic, harrowing and glorious!

I came across this book when I did a bit of googling for a good horror read. It got some great reviews, so I thought I’d give it a go. It was complete coincidence that a dramatised version has recently been screened on the BBC.

At first, it seemed long, slow, overly technical, and descriptive, and frankly, a bit weird and boring. Basically, life in the navy in 1845, stuck in the Arctic with a big, scary monster.

I am SO glad I persisted. By the end, when it all came together beautifully, I absolutely loved it. So much so that I read the last chapters between 1 and 3am – I couldn’t put it down and I went to sleep with a warm fuzzy feeling and a satisfied smile on my face.

I didn’t like:

The first half when I was reading it – but I have long since got over that as the second half was outstanding and I get it now!

The excessively detailed descriptions of the ships and all the naval procedures and rules and regulations – again all is forgiven now – somehow the seemingly long drawn-out first half actually contributed to the epic nature of the story and the slow build to the dramatic conclusion.

The vast number of characters – I’ll be honest I lost track of who was who, and who died when and how – maybe Crozier’s rather anal, mental list-making of who had lived and who had died, rank by rank for both ships, as he hauled his sled across the ice for weeks on end, was a gift from the author to help us with that?

The disgustingly vivid descriptions of violent deaths, gruesome injuries, frost-bite, scurvy, filth and squalor and cannibalism. By nature of the fact that I didn’t like them, it is evident that they were well-written and provoked the desired response in the reader. I was looking for horror and I got it!

Honestly, now that I have finished, there wasn’t much I didn’t like about this book. I almost feel the need to read it all again.

I liked (loved):

The whole story and its wonderful conclusion.

The way it built up the sense of desperation and inevitable tragedy.

The way it all came together in the end and all the mysteries were explained.

That it was so much more than a horror. It was a historical novel, based on a true story. It was a horror story. It also had a touch of the mystical fantasy about it. It was a factual account of the features of an Arctic climate, the Eskimo culture and the navy in 1845. It was also a romance.

That it had a bit of everything! Madness, murder, sex (straight and gay), love, loyalty, courage, despair, death and disease, scurvy, botulism, suicide, traditional myths and stories, mystery, horror, cannibalism, nature and much, much more.

The *SPOILER ALERT* end. The happy, happy end!

I bloody loved this book. One of the best I have read during the Time of Covid!

Book Review – Feed by Mira Grant

Blogging and American Politics with Zombies.

Because I kind of enjoyed Into the Drowning Deep, I gave this a go. Zombies are much more my thing than Mermaids, and I love post-apocalyptic fiction in general, so I had high hopes for this one.

If I had taken a moment to try and remember why I started it a couple of years ago, but didn’t get past the first couple of chapters, I might have saved myself the disappointment.

But, let’s start with what I did like!

I did like the world that Grant created 20 years after the Zombie Apocalypse, where people had learned to live with the Zombie threat through segregation, bio-scans, rigid security protocols and “clean-up” procedures. I might go so far as to say I loved this aspect of the book.

I did like the main characters, even if they were a bit cliched and cheesy at times.

I did like the “believable” premise for the Zombie Apocalypse.

I did like the tight brother/sister relationship between the two main characters, that appeared gruff and narky on the surface, but was based on a deep and mutual, love and respect.

I did like the end. Not just because it meant I had managed to finish the book, but because it was surprising and actually quite moving.

I’m struggling to think of much else that I liked.

I didn’t like:

The story! It wasn’t about Zombies at all! It was about a load of young bloggers (who took themselves far too seriously in my opinion) and American politics (yawn). Essentially, it was a political “thriller”, set 20 years after a Zombie Apocalypse. If I’m honest, I felt a little conned.

The repetitive, and overly detailed, descriptions of screening procedures, blood tests, scans, security systems and “clean-up” operations.

The repetitive references to George’s eye problems and migraines, and Shaun’s continual desire to “poke dead things with sticks.”

For me, far, far, too much opiniated expositioning and info-giving, and not enough action.

I found the whole book very, very dry. Maybe, it was just me. Maybe, I’m just not serious enough. I read Zombie Apocalypse and post-apocalyptic fiction for fun. I read to be entertained, and sometimes moved. This just didn’t entertain me. I struggled to finish it. Thank goodness we had a bit of drama in the last few chapters. They helped to carry me through to the end.

Book Review – Z Notes by Shawn Lilly

Bill and Ted with Zombies!

(Contains spoilers!)

Reading and reviewing this book has been a genuinely interesting and learning experience for me. It has required me to examine my personal prejudices and biases about writing, as well as reconsider my criteria for what makes a good book.

And this is a good book! I enjoyed it far more than many books I have read by “successful” and established writers.

A huge factor for me, when making a judgement about a book, is what I refer to as the writing quality. Convention dictates that a “good” book should exhibit perfect grammar, spelling and punctuation. This book does not. The text is littered with spelling mistakes, incorrect and missing words, and various typographical errors that, at first, made me think I was not going to be able to read it.

But I persevered and was richly rewarded. Z Notes is a GREAT story!

It is book 2 in a series and picks up linearly from where the previous book ends and finishes at the point where the next will begin.

There is so much to like about Z notes:

  • The fast-moving, imaginative, and exciting plot. The author manages to create some real moments of tension that had me so on edge I found myself reading as fast as I could to find out what happened next.
  • The witty and authentic dialogue.
  • The brilliant characters – Matt and Frank remind me of a mix of Bill and Ted and Ben and Mickey from The Battery.
  • The humour that made me laugh out loud in parts.
  • The ZOMBIES! Oh, my goodness, we have fast ones, slow ones, big ones, small ones, blind ones, super-strong ones – we even have giant zombie crocodiles!
  • The romance – both of our protagonists have romantic interests, but poor Matt seems to have fallen for a girl who … let’s just say … is not really interested in an exclusive relationship.
  • The locations. One of the things I love reading (and writing about) is how familiar locations take on a new and unfamiliar feeling after the world has ended. I also like to entertain myself by imagining how different settings would lend themselves to the purpose of escape and evasion, or survival, in a Zombie Apocalypse. Z notes does this exceptionally well. Matt and Frank find themselves in a variety of different everyday settings and the author plays with how the features of these settings might come into play in a Zombie conflict scenario. We have a farm, a ballpark, a construction site, a multi-story car park, a train yard and many more.
  • The vivid and atmospheric scene setting and images.
  • The hilarious chapter titles – “Farm House e-i-e-i-o.”
  • The use of some excellent metaphors and descriptions:
    • “they could swear they heard the grass squeak under their feet.”
    • “you could hear a mouse peeing on cotton.”
    • “the smell of hot trash in summer.”

As well as all that, it has everything you would expect to find in any good Zombie tale, including gore, violence, heroism, and a wide variety of lethal weapons.

The ending was both intriguing, in terms of what they find on the other side of the fence, and shocking, when Matt finally gives Kimberly her comeuppance and an uncharacteristically brutal act of revenge.

I know it’s not the same, but when someone like Bernardine Evaristo writes without capitalisation and punctuation, she can call it prose poetic patterning and win a Booker Prize. I doubt that writers like Shawn and I could carry this off.

The debate about whether grammar and spelling are “elitist” rages on, and I don’t want to get into that here. Not do I want to make assumptions about the author of Z Notes, other than to say that it would be a sad day if a few issues with grammar, punctuation and spelling were to have prevented this highly entertaining story from being told.

Let me just end by saying that a good story is a good story and leave it at that!

Book Review – Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Stay in the Shallows!

I love swimming but the sea has always terrified me. I like to be able to see what’s beneath me and touch the bottom with my toes. After reading this, I’ll definitely never be venturing very far from shore again.
Grant has brilliantly and terrifyingly transformed the pretty little mermaids of fairy tales and Disney films into nightmarish, slimy, slithering monsters that will pursue you with unnatural speed and tear you apart with horrible mouths crammed full of pointed, razor-sharp teeth.
The book is well-written and easy to read, although the frequent use of clichés at the end of paragraphs to create added drama is a little irritating. “They didn’t. But then they never did.” “The screaming takes longer to end, but in time, it does. Everything ends.” etc.
The plot is gripping and compelling. It moves quickly and held my interest throughout.
The dialogue is authentic and witty. There were moments of humour that made me smile, if not actually laugh out loud, but I’m very difficult to please where comedy is concerned.
Although it was technically science fiction, the premise felt frighteningly believable.
There were some scenes that felt a little contrived and threatened the overall authenticity, such as when the protagonist falls into a sea boiling with hundreds of murderous sea creatures that have been killing everyone on sight but, for reasons that are not well-explained, choose to leave her unharmed. Really?
I liked the main characters and cared about what happened to them. I enjoyed the little romance between Tori and Olivia. However, it was impossible not to notice that people from every possible diversity group were represented in the cast; age, race, culture, nationality, physical and mental ability, sexual preference etc. etc. Very correct and appropriate of course, but maybe a little bit over the top for authenticity? Almost every character exhibited at least one of the UK 2010 Equal Opportunities Act “protected characteristics”.
For me, it all came to a rather rushed and unsatisfying conclusion. All of a sudden, the boat shutters come down, the mermaids are dying, the rescue boat arrives and all the survivors live happily ever after.

Book Review – The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray.

A thriller set in a dystopian future where the earth has stopped turning and one side of the word exists in permanent darkness and the other is perpetually light.

Honestly, this was a disappointing read.
I loved the premise but, for me, the book just didn’t deliver.
I had to force myself to read until the end.

I liked:
The idea.
The beginning – lots of intriguing questions and an introduction to the “big mystery” that was the central theme of the book.
I quite liked Hopper and her ex-husband David, although I never really got under his skin.
Glimpses of a potentially interesting dystopian future.
Some nice writing.

I didn’t like:
The fact that what I thought was going to be a thoughtful and interesting post-apocalyptic story, turned out to be a superficial, formulaic, spy thriller.
The predictability of the plot.
The big surprise reveals were not very big or surprising.
It was confusing that in this post-apocalyptic world, most of the main characters and their friends and families were living fairly normal lives in what looked and felt quite like our lives today, apart from a few exotic plants and animals thrown in for good measure, and some very effective blackout blinds. I found myself forgetting that we were in a world of perpetual light and sometimes it felt like the author did too.
Clunky writing was a distraction at times.
Very unbelievable and convenient plot developments.
A bit of a scatter gun approach was used to pepper the setting with post-apocalyptic window dressing.

Overall, it was dull and I “sped-read” to get it over with. I kept thinking about what I wanted to read next, and that was was what drove me to finish. An unexciting spy thriller dropped into an unconvincing post-apocalyptic world.

Sorry. I had such high hopes for this but I just didn’t enjoy it or believe it!

Book Review – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

A thoughtful, gently nostalgic, beautifully written, before and after, journey through a post-apocalyptic world.

I loved this book!

I liked:
The way all the characters were connected and how beautifully it all came together in the end. Even though there were little clues and my suspicions grew as to who was connected to who and how, that was part of the enjoyment.
The writing style was unpretentious and it was an enjoyable and easy read, yet beautifully descriptive.
I liked, or at least felt empathy with, all the characters, even the bad guys, as they were all victims of their circumstances.
The plot held my interest and I wanted to keep reading to see what was going to happen next. I couldn’t put it down.
The more hopeful view of a post-apocalyptical world than we usually see in this genre. Although there had been violence and horror in the past, this seemed to be in the minority now, and people were, generally, kind and loving, and supportive and cooperative.
The positive view on human nature.
The fact that it had a bit of everything – action, romance, drama and science fiction.

I didn’t like:
Very little.
At times, I got slightly irritated when the story jumped back to a different character and their story in a different time and place when I was hooked in to the story unfolding in the previous chapter. However, this was part of what made the book such a good read!
It took me a while to get under the skin of some of the characters because we just got glimpses of them all at the start of the book, and there were so many of them. However, again, this was part of the structure of the book and all was revealed and made perfect sense in the end