Hand of Silver, Hand of Gold by Christopher Grey

We begin with a graveyard at midnight. The stars are out and yew trees sway ominously in the autumn breeze. Hand of Silver, Hand of Gold has been billed as a historical fantasy thriller, and I am curious to see how award-winning author Christopher Grey will navigate a genre so pitted with clichés, especially with an opening that situates it so firmly in this genre.

hand of silver cover picWe soon learn that our first-person narrator is in fact drunk, and my concerns about a tired genre melt away. It is clear that Grey can, and will, do something new with his inherited material, and he does this through brilliant characterisation, a flair for description and artful handling of some complex themes. I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and that it was an exciting ride from start to finish!

Our protagonist Orlando Novi is immediately gripping. I love his short and pointed questions to the reader, his conversational, sarcastic tone. His dry comments drive the plot forward, adding light touches of occasional banter to offset some of the darkness: it soon becomes clear that black humour is his forte.

One thing that did strike me was how his dialogue had the tendency to verge on being slightly over-dramatic and forced – is this a hint of Hamlet, “no spirit, no spectre, no father?”, or a glimpse of a stereotypically patriarchal ‘Renaissance’ society, “Lord, do not let me weep, it is unmanly”? But even as it teeters, Grey on the most part manages to pull it back. The prose is engaging, the characters gripping, and one can see how the slight theatrical tendency of Orlando’s narration perhaps feeds into an element of his character, rather than being over enthusiasm on the part of the author.

This aside, it cannot be denied that Grey presents us with an image of a bustling world, of guilds and domestic arguments and poverty juxtaposed with aristocrats, dark magic and lots of trips to the tavern. The background is that of a society on the brink of turning from Latin to the vernacular, and the image of Orlando caught up in this change as he struggles to read books by candlelight, perfectly places the novel in the historical moment it is trying to capture.

As well as the fast-paced prose and the impressive characterisation, I would say that Grey’s choice of setting is one of the highlights of the novel. Through depictions of frescoes, dusty churches and ornamental carvings of angels, Grey makes full use of his Italian Renaissance backdrop by drawing on its richness in his descriptions. At the same time, the novel has pockets of darkness which mirror that of its setting in 1493, where new learning flourishes alongside superstition and violence is never far from the surface. This is seen in the magic, very much real, which jostles with Christianity, itself put under strain by a strand of discussion that deals with sadistic priests, corruption and some quite unsettling scenes.

The Renaissance was a time of new knowledge, rebirth and discovery. I would say that Grey successfully applies this to his novel. Working in a genre that has lots of clichés, Grey manages to keep things fresh with witty dialogue, a web of secrets that is truly mesmerising, a taut plot and a focus on family relationships (their issues and solutions) that resonates throughout the book. Grey’s world building is a wonder to behold.

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Hidden Variables by Caitlin Lyangh

Hidden Variables is the second book in the Soul Prophecy series, and is the prequel to Anomaly, which I read and reviewed a few years ago. I loved Anomaly, and am happy to say that I also loved Hidden Variables. It had all of the same charm, warmth and sheer humanity as the novel it predates. At the same time, it is clear that this is a more mature work, one with some slightly darker undertones. I like how this novel is, among many other things, a murder mystery, recuperating some of the adventure elements of Anomaly.

hidden variables coverThe first chapter opens with an image of the world on fire. Just a vision – presented to a boy in a mysterious place – but this opening scene prefigures some of the beautiful dichotomies that give shape to the book. There is the contrast between violence and calm, the juxtaposition of teenage bullying and a world of souls and energy, characterised by swirling light and colour, and the tension between Positive and Negative. That this book can flicker between the semi-serious world of netball on the playground to visions of deceased souls in a single scene, is testament to Lynagh’s masterful handling of some complex material. Everything is held in perfect balance.

One of the things that struck a chord with me in this book is the way Lynagh analyses emotions. The book presents an intuitive and thoughtful exploration of emotions: they are variously seen as layers, with an emptiness spanning beneath them, as a whiplash of pain and, in a way similar to synaesthesia, as colours. This multi-faceted portrayal of emotion is helped by the use of multiple narrators, each presented by a quietly detached third-person narrator, who through focalisation bestows each character with a unique perspective.

There are some mature themes in this novel, from murder to suicide, which Lynagh handles with gravity and sensitivity. At the same time, the book thrills with warmth – the sudden bursts of energy as the young Sophia bursts into the kitchen late for school, or is enveloped by her Grandma and handed a cup of coffee, or slowly grows attached to a couple she has only met in her dreams. This is a very human book, and it made me feel warm inside.

Hidden Variables has a linear narrative that is disrupted by visions, dreams and memories, aided by a language of fragmentation. Like the pathways Arhl watches, and the potential futures that branch off in different directions, this book strains with a gently supernatural energy – and it is a joy to watch it unfurl.

The Pied Piper of Digital Marketing by Simba Mudonzvo

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The Pied Piper by Simba Mudonzvo offers a startling new perspective on digital marketing. Fresh concepts in the industry are explored in a way that is both imaginative and engaging: through a series of analogies drawn between marketing and the mythical world of the Piper.

The story is told through an extensive analogy that connects the world of the Pied Piper to digital marketing, in a subtle and unique way. This merging of fiction and non-fiction was very successful, although I think that Simba could have benefited from making some of the finer points of his analogy more explicit. The book was a fun read and I was left more entertained than enlightened, although I did learn a lot along the way.

The fictionality of the short story was something that I really enjoyed. The characters are depicted in great detail, each equipped with their own witty dialogue, a personal history and a unique outlook on life. I would have liked to have seen a bit more depth from some of the characters; the Piper in particular took hold of my imagination and I would have liked to learn more about him, such as his inner thoughts and feelings.

Simba’s writing style is very self-aware and some of his metaphors are stunning, with unusual connections being drawn between the tenor and the grounds. Overall, this short story was very easy to read, although there are a few moments when the wealth of imagery became a bit oppressive, and as a reader I found it occasionally difficult to trace the plot. That said, in the few moments that were like this, I was able to enjoy the effects of the words themselves, and appreciate the apparent joy Simba takes in experimenting with sentence structure.

This is a brand-new take on digital marketing and one that employs myth in a thought-provoking way. I would recommend this short story to anyone who wants to learn more about new concepts in digital marketing, whilst at the same time, enjoying a riveting read with some great characters and a plot full of twists and turns!

Michael Sceptre and the Deathful Chess Games by Simba Mudonzvo

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Michael Sceptre and the Deathful Chess Games is the first novel in what is shaping up to be an epic new series by author Simba Mudonzvo. The book follows the adventures of Michael, a young boy who reluctantly turns to chess to help him escape from school – a decision with far greater consequences than he could ever have imagined.

One of the things I liked most about this book was the way in which the game of chess operated on three different levels: as a small-scale game; as a tournament between two warring nations with ridiculously high stakes; and as an organising factor in an intricate, severely hierarchical social system, with people being born into factions named after chess pieces. The game of chess runs throughout the novel, uniting different characters and whirling them apart at key moments, and is responsible for much of the book’s beautiful imagery.

This book is definitely an enjoyable read. Although there are a few typos and syntactic issues, Simba’s writing style is nevertheless strikingly flamboyant. His words crackle with a mischievous energy, and some of the jokes in this book really made me chuckle.

The plot line is very imaginative and well-thought out. I love how an entire history has been plotted out with plenty of detail and on epic proportions. Think millions of angels, worlds beyond Orion’s Belt, sages, merchants, an economy that runs on gold and silver pieces and kingdoms who make great use of spies, and you’ve got a pretty good idea about the tone of this fantasy novel. The epic back-story threads through the book as a whole, subtly informing the lives of our protagonist, Michael, his brother Alexis, and some of the other young characters.

Michael himself was a joy to read about. Full of life and vigour, I found myself really beginning to root for him as he navigated his way through various misadventures. One of the central themes of the novel is a preoccupation with death: what it means, who it is applicable to, and how it is intertwined with destiny. It was interesting to see how Michael grew and developed as he learnt more about this key part of his universe.

Simba states at the start of the novel that he wants to entertain the world. I think that, with this book, he definitely makes some progress towards achieving this aim. Michael Sceptre and the Deathful Chess Game is a fun read, and one that will leave you breathless for more.

The Dog Guardian by Nigel Reed

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The Dog Guardian is a hands-on, comprehensive guide to achieving the perfect relationship with your dogs, whilst ensuring that their well-being and happiness is paramount. Nigel Reed, author and expert, demonstrates his passion for dogs from the very first page, where a heart-warming introduction details how Reed decided to take his love for animals further by pursuing a career. This book is the accumulated result of years of experience, research, and work in the field of all things canine.

Reed writes with a bouncy, straight-forward prose that is easy to comprehend, even when more complicated psychological ideas are discussed. The book is wide-reaching and all-encompassing in its discussion of all things dog-related, beginning with a brief exploration on how dogs are descended from wolves and discussing the ways in which this heritage could affect their behaviour today.

Reed also proposes new models and theories regarding the training of dogs, such as how to understand their needs in a new, hierarchical format. New insights into what motivates bad behaviour is also present in the text, with potential to really change the way we, as dog owners, guardians and lovers, interact with our furry friends. Reed’s approach is stoutly non-violent and it is clear that a love of dogs is at the very heart of this work. The guide comes with a series of videos in which Reed walks owners through some of the solutions to many common behavioural issues. These videos add some sparkle to the book, as Reed’s personal dynamism is really able to shine through as he takes the stage in a series of hands-on demonstrations.

This is a well-researched and informative book, complete with statistics and clear diagrams. Reed’s approach to the science behind being a good guardian is brilliantly balanced: easy to understand whilst at the same time providing all the necessary information. I can now say with confidence exactly why dogs need access to water throughout the day, or detail the three important things to keep in mind when attempting the perfect dog walk.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who has a dog and would like more advice and tips on how to form a healthy relationship with said canine, a relationship where the interests of the dog are central. Reed’s research is sound, his methods lucidly laid out, and all content is supported by videos that serve to elucidate the methodology. An interesting and informative read.

Death’s Conquest (Spirits, Shadows and Death 1) by Richard C. Webb

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Death’s Conquest is a heart pounding fantasy adventure with a very real cast of characters. I found that the book follows a quest-like narrative, meaning that there is danger, adventure and a good deal of fun at the heart of the book.

My favourite part of Death’s Conquest was the contrast between the fantastical elements, such as the fearsome Shadows, with their glowing red eyes and surprisingly sassy dialogue, and the more realistic sections. The novel is about the battle against a terrible and powerful enemy of mythical power and status, but also about the intricacies of politics, relationships and family life. This blending of fantasy and realism is reflected in Webb’s writing: even though this novel draws heavily on the fantasy genre and its numerous tropes, the narrative has a pleasingly mimetic surface, and one can see how the characters are grounded in the real world of inter-personal relationships, even if their surroundings are purely imaginative.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to comment here that Webb’s world-building skills are excellent. Everything in the novel was vividly realised and painted in beautiful detail. I loved all the little things, such as how the wearing of cloaks was an accepted fashion in the novel! These small facts really helped to build the world up as a whole.

Webb’s writing is also a joy to read – the action scenes in particular were very fast paced and tense, and Webb strengthens these with bursts of scattered humour. Some of the dialogue had a tendency to be a bit predictable, such as at the very beginning of the novel, when characters gave explicit details about their current situation, “this is my first time on guard duty,” and “you’ve been here two weeks.” One would assume that these details would have been known by all involved in the scene, which subtly draws attention to the story’s status as fiction. This is an interesting technique that I think Webb could have perhaps acknowledged more and gotten more mileage out of.

Overall, however, this book was a very fun read, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a light fantasy adventure with some moments of darkness thrown in for good measure!

 

 

‘Fanny Fun’ by M. Cassol

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Fanny Fun is a gorgeous novel filled with laughter, sparkle and, as the title suggests, lots of intimate fun! From the very beginning it is clear that this is going to be one of those rare books that will leave you smiling long after you’ve turned the final page. The feel-good vibes are there in the unobtrusive prose, the sensual details and the happy-go-lucky characters.

This book is definitely a rollercoaster of emotions. Although the writing style can sometimes be a little repetitive, it is well-suited to the genre and contributes to the overarching theme of enduring love. The sex scenes are very well written and contribute to the overall success of the novel.

Fanny Fun is a book about exploration and finding yourself in a chaotic world. The central storylines are illuminated through a series of flashbacks that slot effortlessly into the narrative. These side stories serve to flesh out the characters and add details, insights and fresh perspectives to their present day interactions. The chapter involving Charlie’s backstory, for example, was my favourite by far. Cassol discusses gender identity in sensitive and moving way, and as a result I found this chapter quite emotionally affecting. One thing that emerges prominently from this novel is the importance of loving yourself for who you are, a message I found very uplifting.

My favourite storyline overall was the one involving Pippa and Jackie. Their tale of an instant love connection and the challenges they faced along the way instantly grabbed my attention. Pippa’s work in the field of marine biology added a new register to the novel, which heightened its overall complexity and complemented the romantic side of things. Their storyline wasn’t the only one I loved following, however – I enjoyed the way in which all of the storylines seemed to spark off of each other, creating a web of connections that only becomes clear as you progress through the book. Discovering how all of the plotlines interact is one of the pleasures of this novel, as is the realisation that love is the central theme in all of the storylines, the connecting thread that binds us all together.

Cassol’s many strengths include vivid characterisation. As a reader, I felt like I was getting to know the characters more and more with every page. This process of becoming acquainted with the characters felt a bit like getting to know a new friend. Rather than bursting fully formed from Page One, Cassol’s cast of characters grow and develop organically. One of the joys of this novel is learning more about them as they learn about themselves – a shared journey of discovery.

All in all, this is a fantastic book with lots of emotional ups and downs. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to have a bit of fun and enjoy an uplifting and entertaining read!