Year One by Nora Roberts

This is such a difficult and, frankly, strange book to review. The principal reason for this is because from the blurb and the first hundred or so pages, the novel sets up the reader and one set of genre expectations that are, out of the blue, overturned. Depending on what you think of the genre that dominates the novel from thereon in, responses to the book overall will vary. You see, it started very much like Stephen King’s The Stand, a terrific post-apocalyptic/eschatological novel and one of my favourites in the genre (along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) before it suddenly morphs into an urban fantasy ala Karen Marie Moning’s Fever books, with a little bit of Harry Potter, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis thrown in along with a healthy dose of romance.

 

Basically, Year One by Nora Roberts, starts off as a dramatic apocalyptic story. The opening scenes take us to the Scottish Highlands where the McLeod family gather for their annual Christmas celebrations. Travelling from far and wide, they spend glorious days feasting, hunting, reminiscing and sharing. When the men shoot a pheasant and it lands in the middle of a cursed stone circle (as they do), it marks the beginning of the end as the men, somehow, become infected with a deadly sickness that, as they leave the Highlands and venture back to their homes in London, USA etc. (all via stopovers in other major centres) spreads and kills anyone infected. Fatalities rise and the sickness quickly becomes known as The Doom.

The story quickly shifts to New York and the United States generally and, as is usual with these types of tales, we bear witness to the destruction of society and civility as we know it. Events are observed mainly through the eyes of a few protagonists: journalist, Arylis, sous chef, Lana and her lover, the writer, Max, and a paramedic, Jonah, the man responsible for bringing patent zero – one of the McLeods – to his hospital in NYC, and the only suriving member of the McLeod family.

Mysteriously immune from The Doom, these main characters and the people around them form the core of the story as they seek to find other survivors and generally survive – no, more than survive, but rebuild a life. But while The Doom may have spared them the ravages of a deadly disease, it hasn’t saved them from the murderous intent of other survivors who take advantage of, not only the huge loss of life to grab power, but also wield the mysterious abilities some of them find themselves invested with.

This is the unexpected part of the book. From being quite sci-fi in nature as the disease spreads, touching on the collapse of government, media and general law and order, it suddenly (and I mean, suddenly) becomes populated with witches, fairies, elves and all manner of magical beings, all who seem to know exactly what they are even if their talents are still manifesting and growing. There are those who use their newfound abilities for “good” and those who do not. Then there are those who have survived and fear these gifted humans in their midst, calling them The Uncanny, blaming them for the demise of civilisation as we no longer know it and wanting to destroy them. Of course, there are those who appreciate their gifts and the gifted and seek to live with and within their communities.

Herein lies another problem. The good people are just so good and obviously good; the bad are horrendously and mindlessly wicked. There seems to be no good reason (pardon the pun) for their bad. They just are. The clichés and stereotypes are quite extraordinary. Some of the “baddies” give us insights in the form of diabolical rants before they kill the “goodies” – those with powers and without, but most do not. So, why are they doing it apart from bloodlust? I am assuming for power, but it’s not really explained. It just happens. There have been studies and examples that demonstrate that civility is a veneer many wear lightly and when it’s gone, the monster within emerges. But in many ways, these people are just so monstrous, they are caricatures.

But wait, there’s more… one of the intrepid main characters finds she is pregnant. Not only that, but she is bearing a child who has a role to play in the future of the world. As such, there are those on the Dark Side who wish to destroy both the unborn child and her mother. Why? Again, not sure. How do they know about the child and her apparent potential? Don’t know that either. Though there are the occasional characters who speak in riddles and prophesise, but it’s all very ad hoc and strange. I wanted to know how these people knew about this powerful child. I also wanted to know how, after a few weeks of millions of deaths, the shock of loss and crumbling of society, there were those who not only had powers we’ve only ever seen before in the Marvel universe or at Hogwarts, but could declare to any who asked (and were friendly) what “species” they were: elf, fairy, witch etc. It seemed more than uncanny. How do they KNOW this??? I don’t expect they were all Tolkien fans… but then again…

By now you’re probably thinking I am going to say this is a terrible book. But, if you can get beyond the shift in narrative and expectations, it really isn’t. Yes, there are leaps of logic and lack of explanation that, as you can tell, had me grinding my teeth in frustration and rolling my eyes a few times, but there’s a reason Nora Roberts (and this is the first book of hers I have read) is such a bestseller. She can tell a yarn. So, despite my reservations and the plethora of fairy wings (yes, really), I decided to go with the flow, embrace the urban fantasy and enjoy the ride. It was exciting, wild, sentimental in parts, shocking in others, slightly long-winded in some sections and jumpy and lacking in logic in others, but I actually liked it.

The ending sets up the next book very well (even if it does involve a Dumbledore… I mean, Gandalf, no, I mean wizened mentor dude with prescient knowledge offering hope and horror in equal measure) and a tad too conveniently, but hell, by now I just let the story carry me.

So, if you’re looking for something different that’s not a McCarthy, Atwood or Kingesque kind of post-apocalyptic tale, and enjoy urban fantasy, then you may like this. I know I did, despite thinking I was going to be reading one type of book and then finding myself immersed in a completely different one. And yes, I will be reading the sequel. J

Overall 3.5 stars.

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Sycamore Gap by LJ Ross

Sycamore Gap, the second book in the DCI Ryan Mysteries, takes place about six months after the events in Holy Island. Ryan and Dr Anna are all but living together in Durham when Ryan is called to Hadrian’s Wall where a body has been found stuffed in cavity. Just as the police discover the body is only a decade old and not, as the ambitious archaeologist hanging around the site hopes, ancient, another much fresher body turns up in the same place – a body with ritualistic markings similar to those who were murdered on Lindisfarne months ago.

Once more, past and present collide for Ryan, his side-kick Phillips, and Anna as they work to uncover the killer or killers and seek connections to the brutal, sadistic Circle who caused so much havoc on Lindisfarne.

But it’s when Ryan is forced to confront his sister’s killer that events take an even more sinister turn. There are those involved who have professions and stellar careers to protect and, if they’re at risk, then what have they got to lose, especially when there are more victims to claim?

Fast-paced, the book nonetheless manages to delve slightly deeper into Ryan and Dr Anna’s relationship as well as the professional ones of Ryan, Phillips and their colleagues – as well as the case that almost broke Ryan. The dreaded Circle and its members are also fleshed out, though I confess there were times I found my disbelief stretched almost to breaking point.

While the Mills and Boonish air of the first book has, thankfully, dissipated in this one, there is still the sense that everyone is so bloody beautiful, they’ve been cast by a US modelling firm. Only some of the villains seem to bear any ordinariness in their physical characteristics… I know it shouldn’t bother me, but it did. LOL!

Still, I really enjoyed the book and Ross knows how to keep a reader turning the pages. Have already bought book three and look forward to losing myself in it.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Oh. My. Where do I begin with this utterly original, completely heart-wrenching and beautiful story that kept me awake until the wee hours as I simply had to finish it? I have actually delayed writing a review because I am concerned I won’t do this magic novel justice. But I will try.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a debut novel by Gail Honeyman. It tells the tale of the socially inept, friendless, simple (as in uncomplicated) Eleanor, who’s worked at the same place for almost a decade, eaten the same things, drunk a couple of bottles of vodka every weekend, and followed, with minor aberrations, the same routine for years. This routine includes a weekly telephone call to her cruel institutionalised mother, who appears to have an unnatural and unhealthy hold over her daughter.

When one of Eleanor’s co-workers accompanies Eleanor down the street after work one day and they witness an accident, their subsequent kindness leads to some extraordinary and slow alterations in Eleanor’s life. Suddenly, Eleanor is forced to face the fact her life might be “fine” but is it complete? What she finds when the answers start to come is something unexpected, thrilling and totally frightening.

Beautifully written, sparse and yet, laden with meaning, it is both sweetness and light as well as darkness and horror all at once. Reading was akin to riding an emotional roller-coaster, but one I didn’t want to step from. Your heart aches for Eleanor and those who enter her sphere. As for the mystery that is her past, as it slowly unravels, you quake for Eleanor and what she must face.

This is about inner strength and the demons that try to weaken even the bravest of souls. It’s about friendship, and unexpected and simple acts of kindness and empathy, that come when you least expect it, but often most need them. It’s about fear of change, of the past, but also how both need to be embraced in order to alter the future.

Unsentimental, yet totally heart-warming, it is bitter-sweet as well. You yearn for Eleanor and for the light of hope that flickers through the pages never to be extinguished, though there are moments where it dims dangerously.

I am still thinking about this book days after reading it and cannot recommend it highly enough. A treasure of a story.

 

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How to Be Thin in A World of Chocolate by Michele Connolly

I have a confession to make. I have never read a diet book in my life. So, what made me read this one? Two things. One: I have just submitted my latest novel which involves a chocolate maker, so the title of this book (which I adore) piqued my interest. Secondly: it was recommended to me as not only a quick, tremendous read, but a potential Xmas present (though, I don’t know I’d want to give any of my friends a book on dieting…).

Only, How to Be Thin in A World of Chocolate isn’t only a diet book. It’s really about how to feel good about oneself despite so many forces aimed at making you feel the complete opposite – especially those that come from within.

Packed with common sense, written in a warm, engaging way, I laughed out loud, found myself nodding away, and felt like rather than reading a book about how to look and feel my very best, I was having a conversation with a really empathetic, wise and funny friend. One that doesn’t believe there is anything such as a non-Abba person – my kind of gal.

The kind of book you can dip in an out of as well as read from cover to cover, I suspect it’s one many will return to again and again. Divided into sections around eating, moving and thinking, it offers little pearls, for example about exercise, reminding us of the sixteen rules of exercise we can completely ignore (eg. Exercise in the morning; do 30 minutes a day). There is only one rule we must follow (and when you read it, it’s obvious but I until it was in front of me, I couldn’t have identified it). I’m afraid you’ll have to read this little gem of a book to discover what that rule is.

So, if you’re looking for a little stocking filler that’s beautifully written and packaged and aren’t afraid to slip your family member/friends a book that on first appearances seems to be only about dieting, then this book with the great title is terrific.

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Holy Island by LJ Ross

I seem to be developing a real taste for UK crime books, especially those set on the magnificent islands that necklace the coast. When I discovered Holy Island by LJ Ross was set on Lindisfarne, I couldn’t wait to read it.

Described as the first book in the DCI Ryan mysteries, Holy Island introduces readers to a brooding, incredibly handsome detective named Maxwell Ryan who is on sabbatical from a case that almost broke him. Seeking solace and restorative time on Lindisfarne, when a young girl is found brutally and ritualistically killed, he is recalled from his break (down) to head the investigation.

Not one to suffer fools or unnecessary people being dragged into the investigation, when his boss invites historian, Dr Anna Taylor, a former local who left the island under a cloud, to aid Ryan, he is furious. But when more bodies, also bearing ritualistic signatures start to appear, he has no choice but to ask for the Dr’s help. Only, the Dr is also someone with buried memories and trauma and being back on the island, let alone dealing with a fractious, sexist cop isn’t her idea of work or play. But as the body count rises and Ryan and Dr Taylor are forced to work together, what they don’t realise is that danger, even on this once peaceful, tourist-laced isle, is closer than they think…

In many ways, the book is formulaic – both in terms of romance and procedure, but that’s fine to a point when it is also readable and this first instalment is readable. I think that’s why I can forgive its flaws – from the old-style Mills and Boon attraction of the lead characters (which had me groaning with dismay sometimes as it was quite clichéd in parts), to the lack of professionalism from Ryan. More complex than they first seem, we’re told through various mechanisms that both Ryan and Dr Lucy have layers and depths as do the secondary characters (Ryan’s side-kick, Phillips – who, thankfully, wasn’t a curmudgeonly old sergeant with a good heart so many crime books portray), but I would have liked more of those layers to be explored – particularly Dr Lucy’s apparent intellect. While the reason she specifically was called onto the case is explained later, it’s fairly weak and while you’re always waiting for her to prove herself and her credentials, she spends more time moaning about things not worthy of such a reaction or failing to heed good advice – that’s a wee bit frustrating. We’re told she’s smart rather than, a part from one exegesis she gives, shown.

As for Ryan, he might be good-looking (and there are many, many good-looking characters in this book), but he reads more like a 1940s hero, replete with sexist, misogynistic traits (that are then overturned by a show of sensitivity) than a cop for the new millennium – one who makes some rather silly decisions. He’s going to have to move with the times in a few ways, and revisit professional codes of conduct, to ring true, let alone keep the girl.

What will be interesting to see in the next books in the series is if the frame narrative that explains the crimes and characters responsible in this one will also feature. This was my major concern about the novel – the villains’ motivation was not only a bit simple, but it was a stretch, as was the manner in which they’re embedded in the community, thus allowing their crimes covered up a little too convenient.

Reminiscent of Elly Griffiths wonderful series featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, this book doesn’t have tis clever plot or endearing believable characters. Still, it was the first book and I did keep turning the pages, so I’ll give the second book a go as I do look forward to getting to know Ryan and Dr Lucy better.

Overall, 3.5 stars.

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Into The Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Having loved Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series and setting my sights from an early age on wanting to be a mermaid when I grew up, I couldn’t wait to read Grant’s latest book, Into the Drowning Deep.

When a ship, the Atargatis, destined to shoot a mockumentary in the mysterious Mariana Trench, intending to expose mythic deep-sea creatures – in other words, mermaids – as real, loses its entire crew in horrific circumstances, the whole affair is, basically, hushed up as a hoax. Nonetheless, there is shocking footage a few a privy to which tells a different and dramatic story, just as there are those who suspect that the crew stumbled upon something they shouldn’t have and paid the ultimate price.

Fast-forward to seven years later and another ship and crew are assembled by the same entertainment company that launched the first. Only this time, the purpose is to find out once and for all what the real fate of the people on board the Atargatis might have been and if what those who have witnessed the footage believe could possibly exist. Tying up the rights to any discoveries, scientific, televisual and otherwise, there are audiences to be entertained and good ratings to drive as well as a great deal of money to be made should all go according to plan – whether or not mermaids are real is, to the powers that be, secondary in the scheme of things. Included among the assembled crew are colleagues of those who never returned the first time and the embittered sister of the entertainment company’s face of the previous doomed voyage, Victoria. Determined to find out once and for all what happened to her beloved sister, Victoria, now a scientist, is also hell-bent on revenge.

The crew, scientists and others chosen to partake in this new voyage all have their reasons for being there. Friends and enemies are made, professional competitiveness rears its ugly head and all the problems associated with living in close proximity on a ship, even one afloat on a huge and dangerous ocean, come to the fore. But not even the petty jealousies and rivalries of the group can prepare them for what the deep is about to unleash upon them…

Packed with knuckle-biting excitement, characters that you love and loathe for their strengths and flaws, science and pseudo-science, this novel is a page-turner par excellence. The explanation for the crew’s discoveries, the fate of those on the former vessel and everything that happens once the Mariana Trench is reached is gratifying, nail-biting, frustrating and heart-stopping all at once.

Even though I don’t think I want to be a mermaid anymore, I couldn’t read this fast enough.

Recommended for lovers of sci-fi, fantasy, reimagining of myths, environmental impact novels, or just a darn good read.

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