Book review: The Stars in the Night by Clare Rhoden

World War 1 fiction

About The Stars in the Night

Harry Fletcher is a confident young man.

Harry’s sure that he will marry Nora MacTiernan, no matter what their families say. He’s certain that he will always be there to protect Eddie, the boy his father saved from the gutters of Port Adelaide.

Only the War to End All Wars might get in the way of Harry’s plans…

From the beaches of Semaphore to the shores of Gallipoli, the mud of Flanders to the red dust of inland South Australia, this is a story of love, brotherhood, and resilience.

My Thoughts

The Stars in the Night opens on a grieving Harry Fletcher missing his wife, Nora. His granddaughter is helping him go through Nora’s things. She discovers a journal, composed in WW1 and she insists on hearing her grandfather’s story.

After a charming portrait of the old man, Harry – heavy of heart, his mind laden with memories – and descriptions of Semaphore, his childhood, his friends and family, the narrative shifts back to the war. First to Gallipoli and then ultimately to Passchendaele, where Harry and his foster brother, Eddie, live out the day-to-day reality of trench warfare.

The Stars in the Night captures all that World War One was at a very human level, focussing on the before, the during and the aftermath of survivors picking up their lives. This is a story of resilience, of tragedy, of coming to terms, and of love and hope. At times unbearably sad, at others triumphant and even a little funny, the novel paints a picture of war that is intimate, showing how events occurring in the trenches impacted on the lives of a small coastal village in Australia.

Rhoden is careful not to portray her protagonist, Harry, in a stereotypical Aussie bloke fashion. The prose has a distinctly Australian flavour, the tone carrying a hint of Aussie vernacular, but that voice is thankfully not over-played. Rhoden has crafted real men with cares and troubles and shame and big hearts.

Plotting, pacing, characterisation are all excellent. The structure – a patchwork of carefully woven scenes interspersed with letters and fragments of Eddie’s diary – works perfectly. The story is well-researched. Scenes in the trenches are graphic enough and horrifying. Rhoden’s prose comes into its own during the battle scenes:

“Now all his senses were stretched alive. The riven darkness slashed his vision, violently radiant with fire, while the air bucked, furrowed by metal. The noise pushed against his ears and the deceitful duckboards beneath him wore a slimy reptilian coat.”

Such visceral prose that abounds throughout to my mind places The Stars in the Night in the canon of novels set in WW1. This is the smoothest, most unpretentious and laid-bare engaging war story I have read in a long time. Rhoden is a master storyteller, displaying insight, restraint and empathy. Rhoden has crafted a gem of a story that I hope becomes a set text in Australian schools. Unputdownable.

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Book Review: A Greater God by Brian Stoddart

Brian Stoddart

About A Greater God (Superintendent Le Fanu Mysteries Book 4)

Muslims are being murdered and communal tensions escalating
as Superintendent Chris Le Fanu returns, reluctantly, to 1920s
Madras from the Straits Settlements. He comes under fire, literally
and figuratively, as more Muslims and policemen are killed by
revolutionaries in clashes fomented by his boss, Inspector-General
Arthur ‘The Jockey’ Jepson.

As the riots spread, Le Fanu’s trusted assistants – Mohammad
Habibullah and Jackson Caldicott – disagree on both the origins
and the handling of this new crisis. Le Fanu becomes further
isolated as his only government allies, the Governor and the Chief
Secretary, are being transferred away from Madras.

Even more pressure bears in on him when former housekeeper
and lover, Ro McPhedren, falls critically ill in Hyderabad, and
Jenlin Koh, his new love, is listed among those aboard a ship
missing en route to India.

Le Fanu’s entire professional and personal future is at risk as
he confronts these challenges while Britain’s grip on India wavers.

My Thoughts

I am new to this series; entering Book 4 might have left me floundering but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immersed in the world of Le Fanu and India of the early 20th century and brought deftly up to speed. Catch ups are kept brief and to a minimum, just enough to make the reader want to read Books 1-3.

 A Greater God is set primarily in Madras, a colourful, heaving, vibrant and exotic city –  in many ways another character in the book. The story focussed on a time of considerable political unrest in India with racial tensions mounting between Hindus and Muslims alongside a pervasive resentment towards the British Raj. Stoddart clearly knows his subjectthe historical detail peppered throughout the novel demonstrating considerable insight.

The author weaves vivid descriptions of setting and  the complexities of the historical backdrop into the narrative, binding a sense of place and the theme of cultural unrest cleverly with the plot. The result makes for a gripping read. Stoddart’s pacing is excellent and there are some satisfying twists along the way. The narrative moves along at quite a clip and never labours despite the historical content. This is quite an achievement and is a credit to the author. The dialogue flows well, too, and I especially enjoyed the witty banter.

Stoddart’s characters are well-crafted and he has a sharp eye for cultural sensitivity. The protagonist, Le Fanu, is well-rounded, likeable and suitably conflicted. He has some major decisions to make while he fends off antagonisms from various quarters. Prejudice is portrayed through the despicable inspector, Jensen, and the Muslim perspective is provided in a personal way through Le Fanu’s colleague, Habi, and his growing concern for his community.

A Greater God will appeal to those who enjoy great historical crime mysteries that are both well-written and intelligent.

 

 

Book review: Esme’s Wish by Elizabeth Foster

Esme's Wish review

About Esme’s Wish

When fifteen-year-old Esme Silver objects at her father’s wedding, her protest is dismissed as the action of a stubborn, selfish teenager. Everyone else has accepted the loss of Esme’s mother, Ariane – so why can’t she?

But Esme is suspicious. She is sure that others are covering up the real reason for her mother’s disappearance – that ‘lost at sea’ is code for something more terrible, something she has a right to know.

After Esme is accidentally swept into the enchanted world of Aeolia, the truth begins to unfold. With her newfound friends, Daniel and Lillian, Esme retraces her mother’s steps in the glittering canal city of Esperance, untangling the threads of Ariane’s double life. But the more Esme discovers about Ariane, the more she questions whether she really knew her at all.

My Thoughts   

Before starting this book, the reader is shown a charming map of a mysterious place named Esperance, capital of Aeolia, a map that hints at what’s to come. The story opens in our world, on the wedding of Esme’s father and her new stepmother, Penelope. Esme isn’t happy and she is unable to disguise it. She’s missing her mother, Ariane, who was lost at sea presumed dead. Esme is a lonely child, little liked by the villagers of Picton Island where her father is lighthouse keeper. An outsider, she wants nothing more than to find out what happened to her mum.

When Penelope’s sister, the despicable Mavis, moves in to mind Esme while her father has his honeymoon, Esme experiences strange headaches and dizzy spells. She has a vision of her mum and dad and is puzzled by it. Her anguish over her mother intensifies and she decides to take off to Spindrift Island where Ariane disappeared many years before. As her quest unfolds, Esme is swept unexpectedly into another world, the world of Esperance, where she makes new friends and continues her search.

What unfolds is a series of adventures large and small, of dragons and other mythical creatures, and of special magical gifts. To say more would spoil the enchantment.

Foster has a fluid, engaging narrative style. The writing is simply exquisite. The pacing, plot twists and characterisation are just perfect. Depictions of the city of Esperance are conveyed in vivid and captivating detail. The various threads and elements of the story are woven together beautifully, culminating in an ending filled with wonder and surprises.

This is a story of loss and searching, of ancient Greek myths, of the artistic temperament and supposed insanity, of minds capable of accessing the inner realms the rational mind cannot reach. Absorbing, enchanting, whimsical, Esme’s Wish is a story to lose yourself in. I would recommend this book to readers one and all. Thoroughly enjoyable.

 

Book Review: Fading (The Fading Series Book 1) by Cindy Cipriano

Fading

About Fading

Living in a small town like Woodvine, North Carolina, means everyone knows everything about everybody. The same goes for seventeen-year-old Leath Elliott who can’t seem to escape her tragic past and the loss of her father. Her only break from reality is through recurring dreams where she’s spent a lifetime growing up with a boy she’s never met.

When a stranger shows up in the form of James Turner – a mysterious boy with a dark past – Leath begins to wonder if her dreams might be coming true. Literally.

Things get complicated when Leath finds out that James’ sudden appearance in her small town is anything but a coincidence. Demanding answers, Leath confronts James, but nothing could have prepared her for the truth he tells her.

Now, the future she once saw in her dreams and the boy she’s falling for is fading fast and Leath must make the ultimate decision between giving up her freedom or giving up her heart.

My thoughts

Fading is a charming story of teenage love and longing narrated with much warmth and sparkle. Leath, a seventeen-year-old high school student, has fallen out of love, if she ever has been in love, with Victor, a Spanish boy and longterm friend devoted to her. Leath is searching for fulfilment, in whatever form that comes. Then a new boy, James, starts at the school and Leath falls in love. James has lost both his parents, Leath has lost her father. United at first by a shared grief and a deep attraction, as Leath gets to know James more and more, all is not as it seems. Meanwhile, Leath is torn between her love for gorgeous and mysterious James and her lingering attachment to soft and reliable Victor.

As the story unfolds and the mystery of James is revealed, the story slips into the paranormal, building to fascinating otherworldly revelations.

Fading is very well written with good pacing and excellent characterisation. Cipriano gets under the skin of her protagonist, right to the heart of her fantasies, dreams and feelings, her confusion and sensitivities and hurt as she searches for real love. Enchanting, sad, touching, and evocative of all the fine feelings of youth, Fading is very hard to put down.

The Great Amazon Review Chase

Amazon reviews

Why Book Reviews on Amazon Matter

Every author knows book reviews posted on retail giant Amazon matter. Amazon owns about 50% of the global book market and a book’s Amazon ranking is a major determiner of its success. The Amazon ranking is based on an A9 algorithm involving various factors including the quality of the cover, relevance of the blurb and the use of keywords. You can read up on Amazon’s A9 algorithm and how it works online.

Number One – Sales matter. The more the book sells, the higher the ranking. No surprise there!

Click throughs from searches to your book’s page also matter.

Editorial reviews are next in line as they are posted in the book’s description, appear high on the page and are a strong endorsement of the value of the book. Editorial reviews are those published by industry reviewers and critics from reputable and relevant publications.

When it comes to regular reviews, there are two kinds – verified purchase reviews and those that are not. Only verified purchase reviews count in the ranking algorithm, and they are weighted so that the most recent reviews matter more. This puts pressure on authors to keep finding fresh reviews for their titles.

Less than ten verified purchase reviews on a single Amazon site and the book may (or may not!) rank poorly.

Under ten reviews, verified purchase or not, is simply not a good look. A minimum of ten Amazon reviews is a requirement on some book promo sites.

All non-verified purchase reviews posted on Amazon count towards social proof. Around 40-60 on one Amazon site (preferably .com) are needed, we are told.

(Why Amazon chooses to compartmentalise reviews is a mystery to me. Amazon .com is blind to reviews on other Amazon sites, and reviews on Amazon UK are not visible to Amazon AU shoppers for the same book! They really couldn’t make things harder.)

When a customer or browser clicks on the Helpful button on any of the reviews on a book page, I understand this also helps to bump the ranking of that book.

Ranking high means greater discoverability. Your book will be much more visible to future browsers. This in turn leads to more sales. Little wonder authors and publishers have seized on every aspect of the Amazon algorithm in order to elevate books above the rest. Seeking reviews has become a major part of this scramble for ascendancy.

Sadly, the situation has become toxic.

The Amazon Book Review Scramble

They say if you want to succeed as an author, write another book. Keep writing and keep publishing. Don’t worry about what has gone before. Forge on and have faith. These maxims are all well and good but if you follow them you may end up with a large number of titles to promote and little energy left to do so, especially when book promotion is reduced to the Amazon review hunt.

In a swamped global marketplace, authors will do all in their power to raise their heads above the crowd. Out of the gamut of possible ways to market your book, the most obvious and expedient of all book promo is seeking reviews on Amazon. This can be done in a variety of ways.

You can kick back and hope that those buying your book on Amazon will leave a review. This is what Amazon want you to do. It is a hit and miss approach that may or may not yield results.

You cannot demand reviews from anyone ever. Amazon bans it and besides, it is unbecoming if not downright rude!

You can submit review requests to book bloggers. There are many thousands of them. The take up rate is generally between 5-10% and there is no guarantee a book blogger will share their review on Amazon. Bloggers generally won’t be posting verified purchase reviews and therefore their reviews will only count as social proof. If you only want 5 star Amazon reviews, move on.

You can pay some book bloggers for reviews and they will generally gush praise in return and post on Amazon. This approach is expensive and Amazon bans it.

You can pay for a book tour operator to line up a bunch of reviews for you, saving you the trouble of finding and emailing many hundreds of book bloggers. Again, said bloggers may choose not to share their review on Amazon and you probably won’t get the glowing 5 star reviews you are looking for. What you will get is a relatively stress free and overall honest and critical appraisal of your book with tons of content to share and re-share forevermore.

You can suggest to all of your family and friends that they buy your book and leave a wonderful 5 star review. If you do this you better hope Amazon does not pick up on the fact that said verified purchases are those made by your family and friends as this is a forbidden practice. Further, each of your family and friends will have to spend a minimum of $50USD on Amazon before they can post a review.

You may find other more surreptitious ways of creating fake reviews but I would not advise it.

In our current age of opinion where every company from a motel to a supermarket is seeking product and service reviews, authors are up against it. Consumers are getting review fatigue. Authors are wearing themselves out. Seeking Amazon reviews at the expense of investing time and energy in the rest of the book marketing industry is buying into corporate dominance. For this reason alone, we need a rethink of attitude.

Why Authors Need to Adopt a Different Attitude

Exclusive focus on Amazon book reviews is toxic. Here are some ways we are damaging ourselves as authors and people.

Stress

Stress

The Number One destructive consequence of the Amazon review chase is stress. Authors who are under or put themselves under pressure to keep up the chase risk emotional and mental harm. The review chase too easily becomes an obsession. In no time fixation takes hold. We do a daily review count. We hunt out new reviewers. We fret and get frustrated. Our daily mood is determined by whether or not we have received a new Amazon review. None, and we grind our teeth. One star and we are gutted. Five stars and we go wild with joy.

This mindset creates an overly narrow focus. All other tasks are pushed aside. We stop thinking expansively and we stop valuing all other forms of book marketing. We have become diminished. It is no way to live.

Self esteem

Chasing reviews may result in attaching our self worth to the number of reviews we have on Amazon. Too few reviews means our books are no good and therefore, since we wrote them, neither are we. We may question not only the lack of reviews but our own inability to get them.

The converse is also true. Those who are good at soliciting reviews may gain an inflated sense of self worth to the detriment of those around them. Self criticism is an essential aspect of being a writer. We need to criticise our own output. Scores of 5 star reviews may result in self-delusion. We may believe we have penned a high-quality product when it is not necessarily the case.

Creativity

The ultimate loser in the Amazon review chase is our creativity. All time spent on admin is time not spent writing. Chasing reviews is a time consuming and draining admin task. Stress will place us in a state of mind not conducive to being creative. If we attach too much importance to Amazon reviews, a lack of them means we may lose confidence in our ability to write good works. A demoralised author is not in a good space. An over-inflated author is not in a good space either. Authors need humility and poise to be creative. Dedicating our lives to the Amazon review chase potentially spells death to our creativity.

Integrity

The Amazon review chase compromises our integrity as authors. We debase ourselves every time we go on the hunt and every time we try to buck the system. By allowing ourselves to become a corrupt part of the Amazon machine, we have sold out to the corporate giant to the detriment of ourselves and the industry as a whole. It is about time authors and publishers took a stand against Amazon and its algorithm. We need psychological distance from a singleminded focus on Amazon reviews. We need to re-evaluate who we are as authors and not allow ourselves to become slaves to a system driven by numbers and rankings. We need to elevate quality over quantity and the issue of Amazon reviews is a good place to start.

Isobel Blackthorn is an author and book reviewer. You can find her books and reviews by clicking around this site.

How I came to write a doctoral thesis on Alice A. Bailey

It was 2001 and the twin towers had fallen the month before. 9/11 marked an event in my own personal story as my mother chose that day to migrate back to Australia, leaving me alone with my twin daughters in the UK. I was a high school teacher at the time, and that year I was teaching a small group of students A level Religious Studies. For the coursework component, they all chose to write an essay on the New Age, or alternative spirituality, as it is now known. They had no idea the woman teaching them was an esoteric thinker with a profound interest in Theosophy and the occult, and one figure in particular: Alice Bailey.

New Age

A Turning Point

I was dedicated as ever to being the best teacher I could be, but while I worked hard at my job something nagged at me, some part of me that remained unfulfilled. I wanted to strive for higher things, maybe teach at tertiary level. I thought I would undertake a PhD. I could study part time and somehow fit it in to my already overloaded life.

I searched for universities with a progressive religious studies department offering distance education and ended up emailing my old university, The Open University, where I gained a First-class Honours degree many years before. I received no reply. Then I was told there was a fault in the system and would I re-send. I did. Still nothing. I sent another email. Silence. I waited. Months passed. I had just about given up on the idea. Then, one day in February 2002, I took my students to Warwick University to research their coursework essays. We visited the library and then browsed the bookstore.

On a bottom shelf, looking a bit battered, was a book on alternative spiritualities, co-edited by a Dr Marion Bowman, based at the University of Bath. Realising its value to my students, I bought the book (scoring a discount because of its poor condition) and we all went home.

Marion Bowman

I still have the receipt!

 

That afternoon, in my inbox was an email from the same Dr Marion Bowman. To my astonishment she now worked at the OU! She said she had received my email but she couldn’t open it and would I re-send it. I did, going into a ramble about how I wanted to research something on the nature of god, throwing in Alice Bailey as an afterthought. She emailed me back within the half hour. Then came the phone call. Alice Bailey, she said, you must do a PhD on Alice Bailey. She urged me to study full time. Apply for a scholarship. I could scarcely believe it. I gazed at the row of Blue Books on my shelf. It felt like fate.

A Crisis

But the workings of fate are mysterious and not always straightforward. I did apply for that scholarship, but before I could tell my school what was happening, the OU contacted them for a reference. Ouch. By now it was March. The headmaster was understanding but my head of department was not. It was Mother’s Day when she phoned me and gave me a piece of her mind. She was so angry I had to hold the phone away from my ear. As she ranted, something in me snapped. I had been putting up with her shenanigans for years.

I went on stress leave. I contacted my union. I was about to put in a grievance. I wanted to quit and study but the scholarship was a pittance and I would never have survived. I was in a real quandary. Then life started intervening and everything went wrong. My whole back fence fell down in a storm. I had problems with tax. My daughters missed their grandmother and one was especially unhappy. Everything was pointing to me returning to Australia.

A life-changing decision

I arrived in Australia in May 2002. An old friend put me onto the School of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney who offered distance education. I contacted them, found a marvellous supervisor in Dr Lesley Kuhn, applied, and secured a handsome scholarship, far in excess of what I had been offered in the UK. It almost made up for the sadness I felt at leaving my home, my career, my friends, my life – all of it, especially my A level students. I still have the farewell card they gave me (the school kept the true story quiet and word went around that I was ill).

I have never been sure if I made the right choice leaving England, but that first university residential school in Sydney I was walking on air. Everything about it was surreal. The people I met, the friendships formed, the chance encounters on the long journey there and back – the entire experience had a definite charge to it. I felt endorsed, sanctioned and somewhat revered as those who knew of Alice Bailey also knew what an enormous undertaking I was embracing. (My thesis, The Texts of Alice A. Bailey: An Inquiry into the Role of Esotericism in Transforming Consciousness, is available online)

In 2007, a year after I received my doctorate, I secured a job working for a high-profile literary agent. It was Mary Cunnane who urged me to write a biography of Alice Bailey. Instead, years later and after much hesitation I wrote The Unlikely Occultist: a biographical novel of Alice A. Bailey. The novel is a labour of love and service, in honour of a truly remarkable woman who deserves to be far better known and appreciated.

Alice A. Bailey

 

Book review – The Blood Red Experiment: A Neo-Giallo Anthology

Giallo fiction

About The Blood Red Experiment

Inspired by the genius of Hitchcock and his films, latin luminaries such as Argento and Bava directed macabre murder-mystery thrillers, that combined the suspense with scenes of outrageous violence, stylish cinematography, and groovy soundtracks. This genre became known in their native Italy as giallo.

Giallo is Italian for yellow, inspired by the lurid covers of thrillers, in the way that pulp fiction was derived from the cheap wood pulp paper of the crime stories, or Film Noir came from the chiaroscuro of the German Expressionistic lighting.

Craig Douglas and Jason Michel bring gialli-inspired stories together from some of the best crime writers on the scene today to a wider audience, giving birth to a new literary movement in crime writing, NeoGiallo, and drag this much maligned genre screaming and slashing its way into the 21st Century.

My thoughts on The Blood Red Experiment

The six stories contained in this anthology are exemplars of the sub-genre of giallo. The pages ooze sensuality, the writing is slick and the horror stylised and graphic. After a useful introduction to the terrain by Richard Godwin, the anthology opens with K. A. Laity’s ‘Madonna of the Wasps’, a gruesome tale of ritual killings in a Bohemian Parisian world, enacted to sate the hunger of a bloodthirsty dominatrix. Like all the authors in this anthology, Laity’s writing is poised and masterful. The author provides an interesting and diverse cast of characters and the protagonist, Mira, an artist with a fantastical imagination, is especially well-rounded. ‘Madonna of the Wasps’ is a fast-paced tale with some unexpected and shocking twists. Ultimately satisfying and provocative, this story is a terrific opening not just to the anthology, but to the sub-genre of neo-giallo.

For the uninitiated, Mark Cooper’s ‘Quaenum In Illis’ is the most accessible read in the anthology. Here, a former scholar of linguistics is invited by a mysterious woman to translate the pages of an ancient text. Cooper draws the reader straight into the intrigue in true thriller style, saving the blood for later. Moody, dark and fascinating, the mystery and tension unfold from shifting perspectives.

‘Canvas of Flesh’ by Jack Bates will bring out the voyeur in the best of us as artist Preston completes his art exhibition using a particular portion of the body of Jessica. Sensuality and horror blend beautifully in this tale, the reader enchanted and disturbed all at once, compelled to turn the pages. As the story unfolds the initial wonder soon shades into revulsion, as Bates confronts the reader with a portrait of obsession.

Urban, noir and mysterious, Jim Shaffer’s ‘Blood of the Lamb’ is a superb example of where giallo takes a crime-thriller. The story opens in a church then follows the observer to a shabby hotel, then back out on the streets, for the kill. The story switches to Frank, a feature writer quick with his camera. What unfolds will be read in one sitting, the eyes never leaving the page.

‘The Impermanence of Art’ by Kevin Berg is probably best not read while eating. Graphic horror is rendered sensual, the storytelling intense and unrelenting until the final twist as an art student is seduced by some illicit videos streamed on her phone by a maverick art instructor. Berg’s offering is at the extreme end of the sub-genre and not for the faint of heart, yet it is a gripping tale told with imagination and wit.

Bookending the anthology is Richard Godwin’s ‘Machine Factory’, an exposé of a deranged psychiatrist. In taut, rhythmic and urgent prose, Godwin thrusts his readers inside the mind of a serial killer. The extent of the protagonist’s insanity is boundless, his fanciful and quasi-intellectual rants alarming and all too real. The story is brutal, confronting and disturbing. There is no redemption here.

Find The Blood Red Experiment on Amazon