The Hunt for Atlantis by Andy McDermott

Having recently finished The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle, I was really in the mood for another, fast-paced, escapist Atlantis-themed novel. Andy McDermott’s The Hunt for Atlantis, the first in what is a very long series featuring archaeologist, Nina Wilde and former British SAS soldier, Eddie Chase, appeared to fit the bill.

Raised by parents obsessed with discovering the location of the lost city of Atlantis, it’s natural that after their sudden deaths in Tibet years earlier, Nina should continue with their work. Believing she’s found the location of the lost city, it’s not until her application for a university grant to test her theories is rejected and she is picked up by a philanthropic Norwegian billionaire Kristian Frost and his organisation, that Nina can begin her hunt in earnest. But there are others interested in what Nina has found and her search, so much so, Frost hires a bodyguard to keep her safe – the crude but courageous, Eddie Chase. And so the adventure really begins.

From the snow-clad regions of Norway, to the heat of the Middle East, steaming jungles of Brazil, the dark depths of the Atlantic and dangerous streets of New York, the hunt to find Atlantis and the secrets the ancient civilisation has kept for millennia is on. Can Chase keep Nina and those in the Frost organisation keen to see her succeed safe from the deadly brotherhood determined to see her fail? Or will Atlantis remain hidden forever?

This novel started well. The pace was break-neck, the premise (if you suspended your disbelief) fine and the characters were solid enough. The descriptions of car chases, plane crashes, shoot-outs, explosions, and so many near-death experiences were cinematic to say the least. But after a while, the whole run, shoot, run, shoot, get captured, freed, run, shoot, repetitiveness became a little tired, even for this action-buff. Not only that, but the cliched dialogue and often sexist representations (beautiful women, handsome – once you get to know them – heroes and ugly villains), galled a wee bit too much. Then there was the unconvincing brain power of Nina the central figure who everyone was relying on to find Atlantis. Even so, they had to bring in her (pedestrian) professor and mentor to do some translating. As he begins, suddenly, Nina (after a hard face palm) remembers she CAN do it after all – d’oh! Do they send said professor home? No. he hangs around like a fart in an elevator and is just as odious. That’s only one example of the clever woman character versus unnecessary extra person failing in that regard. Then there was the lack of sexual chemistry between Nina and Eddie, the other characters with “doom” tattooed on their forehead (metaphorically speaking), so you knew from the outset what their fate would be – and so on. In other words, the novel became quite predictable very quickly.

In the end, while I enjoyed a great deal of the tracking location and various discoveries, it was all a bit too much, and I just wanted to the story to end. Overall, it was the escapism I thought I was after but, sadly, it didn’t allow me to escape from the fact I just didn’t enjoy the story as much as I’d hoped.

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A Room at the Manor by Julie Shackman

A Room at the Manor by Julie Shackman is a delicious romantic romp set in contemporary Scotland and which tells the story of Lara McDonald who, after a relationship fails, returns to her home town of Fairview, near Glasgow. Broken-hearted, she takes a job with the catty Kitty Walker in her tea room called True Brew. Unhappy, but determined to heal, Lara befriends the local, elderly laird, Hugh Carmichael, sharing with him her hopes and dreams for a future she fears will never come to pass. When Hugh suddenly dies, Lara finds herself in a strange position: one of her dreams is about to come true, but as it unfolds, in ways she never could have imagined, she begins to wonder if the price is simply too high.

Filled with love lost and won, amazing recipes and descriptions of cakes, breads and slices which, I confess, had me rushing to the kitchen to bake (and eat) myself, the greatest threat this light, fun and always heart-rich tale poses is to your waist-line! The relationships Lara forges and those she resists are wonderful to behold, especially the one she has with her best friend, Morven and her prickly, militant mother. Slowly, as Lara begins to repair her heart, she finds it under threat again, only this time, she seems powerless to prevent herself repeating the same mistakes…

Told with pathos and humour, the story moves at a good pace and the characters crackle with vigour. The Scottish town of Fairview and the grand manor, Glenlovatt, and the food Lara and her friends make and consume also become characters and you’ll find it hard not to fall in love with them as well. As I was reading, it struck me that this would make a terrific Hallmark movie – which is interesting as one of Shackman’s roles (apart from author) is to write for greeting cards!

Recommended for lovers of romance, and those who want to escape into a good book, curling up by a winter fire or in some sand, beneath golden sun and heat, Shackman’s novel is a great companion.

Thank you very much to Allen and Unwin for sending me a copy. 🙂

 

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I Let You Go by Claire MacIntosh

What a remarkable book. Simply riveting from start to finish. Little did I know what I was in for when I began to read…

One cold, English evening, a mother walks her child home from after-school care when tragedy strikes. The novel then takes two primary points of view: a grieving mother’s, Jenna Gray, and that of detective Ray Stevens. The story covers many months and the reader is taken into the dramatic changes that Jenna’s life undergoes, how she copes with her decisions and those made for her and slowly, painfully, starts to build a different future – at least she tries until the past suddenly and cruelly catches up with her.

For Ray and his team, the case that shocked and upset them slowly becomes another cold one: an unsolved crime which eats at their equilibrium. For Ray, and his new colleague, it’s particularly raw but time and crime make other demands of them, that is, until sheer persistence brings a fresh lead… a lead that challenges their faith in humans and in their skills.

This is an utterly gripping book. At one level, I suppose it is a crime/mystery book, but it is also much more than that and, in its structure and focus, it’s quite unlike any other book I’ve read before. The first half is a fantastic study in character, families, grief, desperation, guilt, and how life and relationships make and break us. How we have to live with the choices we make: good and bad. The way MacIntosh draws us into not only Jenna’s attempts to rebuild her shattered life, but also Ray’s devotion to his job, guilt over his family and the trials he and his wife, former cop, Mags face when dealing with their teenage son are raw and real. The personal relationships Ray takes for granted as well as the professional ones he does not ring true as does his self-reproach and constant second-guessing of what he could do better. Jenna’s world and Ray’s come crashing down around them for different reasons and by the time they do, you’re so invested in both of them, it’s s genuine kick in the heart. The sometimes injustice of justice is front and centre.

The second half of the book, after shocking the reader with a twist that some might see coming (I sort of did, but it was no less breath-taking because I did), introduces a new voice and a further examination of relationships and what people will tolerate, sacrifice and deny in order to save face, love, themselves. It is heart-wrenching and difficult reading at times, but it’s also impossible to put down.

The ending is a kick in the guts, nail-biting and gratifying – but also completely suspenseful. I stayed up far too late to finish it as I couldn’t bear going to sleep not knowing how the book concluded. While I imagined a dozen different scenarios, not one came as close to MacIntosh’s outstanding climax and denouement.

If you enjoy well-written mysteries, with great character development, tight plotting and believable, flawed characters, this is one you must add to your library. It is stunning.

 

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Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Illustrated by Zoey Abbott

What do you do when a book reaches into your soul and squeezes it so hard you’re left breathless and filled with a wondrous ache and yet the marvel of hope and the beauty of sorrow? You dry your eyes, still your weeping and read it all over again – this time, more slowly, taking in the deceptively simple and heart-warming prose and the gentle joy of the illustrations.

So it was when I had the amazing experience of reading Rachel Noble’s utterly lovely book for children, Finn’s Feather. This is a stark, moving and gorgeous tale about a boy named Finn who, when he finds a perfect white feather on his doorstep one day, believes it is a gift from his dead brother Hamish. I know… right?

The story is about how Finn, thrilled with his brother’s gift, can’t understand his mother’s or teacher’s reaction. His mother hugs him and sighs, his teacher takes a deep breath and smiles (and God, how I hurt when I read their reactions – it was a visceral response). It’s left to his best friend, Lucas to find, with Finn, the pleasure in his brother’s gift and the message it sends: to continue to laugh, love and never forget.

This exquisitely rendered tale of grief and loss, is told very much through a child’s eyes and how they process sorrow so differently. It is so sensitively rendered, so positive in its scope and the message and, believe it or not, happiness it offers (as well as the unbelievably touching acknowledgment of loss) that it should be read widely by everyone who has a child or who has experienced the death of a beloved.

I have been so touched by this story, but also rightly impressed with how it has been told – the care and love that has gone into a difficult and yet important tale in a society that generally doesn’t handle discussions of death at all well. Rachel Noble is to be commended and, indeed, praised for this elegant, poignant work – and for the ways in which she’s used her own experiences to give it such veracity and depth.

Let me give you a bit of background. In October 20102, Rachel lost her son Hamish in a terrible accident at home. As a way of trying to make sense of what happened, of Hamish’s death, as a professional writer, she turned to her craft: she wrote – and wrote and wrote. Knowing she wanted to write a picture book to honour Hamish and everything he means to her and her family, it wasn’t until she came home one-day and found a feather on her doorstep that Finn’s Feather took shape.

Snapped up by a US publisher – the phenomenal Enchanted Lion books, a family owned enterprise, it comes out June this year, including in Australia.

This is such an important book, such a lovely addition to any child’s and family’s library, I cannot recommend it enough. In sharing her emotions, her family’s story in such an accessible and meaningful way, Rachel has given voice to what is so hard to express and, along with Zoey Abbott, given death and loss a tender garment  for us all to don and cherish.

I loved Finn’s Feather and all the complex emotions it stirred, and the big, aching heart at its beautiful centre.

Thank you.

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Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor.

I was so looking forward to reading this book. Highly recommended to me, when I saw the fabulous title (it’s a ripper) and read the synopsis, I was in. What’s not to love about historians who actually time travel and work for a shady-kind of organisation (St Mary’s) that investigates the past, with often drastic consequences? I was under the impression it was a lark, fun with lashings of history and great characters (they were historians, after all).

Well, it was certainly a lark – a romp even – through the very quick and barely explained training of a young historian with attitude, Max, before she sets off on dangerous adventure after adventure, earns the enmity of terrible people, the love of someone we’re led to believe is a good man, and saves the organisation in the process… or does she?

I initially thought this must be a YA book – or rather, a book for VYA (V for Very). There was something in the style and language which I thought would appeal to that age group (and I love good YA fiction). No. I soon encountered some quite bloodthirsty and descriptive sex scenes which countered that idea. Nevertheless, as I read about Max’s training, the colleagues she worked with, the very notion of time travel itself and the rationale for engaging in the same, I went along for the ride. I actually enjoyed it and because it was Easter, put up my feet and kept telling myself not to be so concerned with the lack of history, of depth of character; to ignore the inconsistencies… only, in the end, as “fun” as the book was meant to be, I simply could not.

I am all for suspending disbelief and going with the flow, particularly when the writer creates a compelling world and populates it with rich and interesting characters. There’s no doubt, the premise behind this series is fabulous. The problem for me (and I seem to be very much in the minority), is the characters – particularly the main one. Almost without exception, they were shallow, immature and, as I said above, inconsistent.  For example, Max’s love interest (and their romance seems to be fine – unconvincing, but fine), despite her going to courageous and incredible lengths to prove, among many other noble things, her love for him, believes the cruel and viscous words of someone who tried to kill her. Worse, he then goes and verbally abuses Max in a brutal public tirade. It’s as if their own history, what they’ve meant to each other, what she’s just done, vanishes because of the words of someone he knows is determined to bring the woman he loves down… WTF? It was unbelievable and out of character. It really, really pissed me off. Then there’s the fact that sexual predators loom large at moments that jump out of nowhere. Now, there’s a degree of sad truth in that. However, in this book, their actions (the predators) seemed to occur to drive the plot in a different direction, or shine light on another character (or the main one), not because that’s the behaviour you’d come to expect from them in terms of their character development or, for that matter, their storyline to date. They just suddenly become sexual aggressors…

The immaturity of the characters is hard to swallow at times. I am all for hard-working people cutting loose and playing practical jokes and all the other kinds of things people do in stressful and life-threatening situations, but this wasn’t about that. It was more to do with the way they interacted with each other, the petty and worse jealousies, the language they used. I can’t explain it except to say, having worked in an academic environment for years and with the best and worst of people (like any working environment), I have never met people so juvenile as they were represented in this novel. The characters not only lacked gravitas, but an emotional depth – yes, I think that’s what bothered me. The lack of emotional depth. It’s hinted at (especially with Max), but never, ever explained. Maybe it’s being saved for a later instalment – eg. her childhood demons. But these characters were able to rise above deaths of even beloved colleagues (admirable, in some respects) and continue with their work, but not above someone getting a better gig… No, that brought out a kind of Dastardly Dan/Cruella DeVille type villainy and murderous intentions bwahahahahaha…

Likewise, for a novel focused on time, the times recreated were mostly unconvincing as was the presence of the historians in it. Travelling to an auspicious date during a World War and integrating with the people there (after the reader is told the historians must never change the time line or interfere – this is drilled into them, but the lead character continually ignores this), there is no explanation of how they’re accepted by the people in the period – and for weeks – and by the military and when the enemy is just around the corner. This is despite the fact that papers would have to be provided, passports, back stories and no end of proof as to who they were and why they were there. And how was it that historians, after a mere few weeks, were able to act as emergency nurses etc?  And not just in this period…

The other periods travelled to were superficially rendered and while in some ways that’s fine, as the excitement lay elsewhere, it would have been nice, and grounded the tale, if a little more time was spent on the time… if that makes sense? And just when you think I’ve finished pointing this stuff out, there’s also the fact that after what seems like no time, we find out Max has been at St Mary’s for five years! Since when? How can a book about time be so careless about representing the passage of real time?

Look, I could go on (it was just one damned thing after another), but I won’t. Despite all this, I really enjoyed aspects of the book. Will I read more in the series? I don’t yet know. I am worried the cons outweigh the pros for me. But, as I said above, I am very much in the minority with this view. Most people have read and adore this book and, indeed, the series and good for them. And that title (and the others) is just so good…

 

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