The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston

Publishing 9th June 2022 by Rebellion Publishing

A twisty tale of magicians, con artists and card games, where secrets are traded and gambled like coin, for fans of The Lies of Locke Lamora and The Mask of Mirrors.

Never stake more than you can afford to lose.

When failed magician turned cardsharp Valen Quinol is given the chance to play in the Forbearance Game—the invitation-only tournament where players gamble with secrets—he can’t resist. Or refuse, for that matter, according to the petty gangster sponsoring his seat at the table. Valen beats the man he was sent to play, and wins the most valuable secret ever staked in the history of the tournament.

Quinol’s hand is forced, he wins the secret and, despite passing it on as agreed, the lives of his family and friends are put in danger. Not only that, but the secret could cause war to break out. This was definitely not on the cards (sorry!) when he accepted the task.

He has to use all his cardsharp tricks, his unfinished, unrefined magic training and rely on the skills of his con artist wife and friends (the only family he has) to work out a way to stop the keepers of the secret killing anyone who learns the truth and prevent what looks like inevitable war breaking out. Not easy when he only has fragments of information and, unlike in the card games he is used to playing/fixing, cannot predict the other players’ next moves.

Livingston’s world building is creative and strong, based on a range of political goings on and that of unseen magic.

The world of gambling and card playing cons was an eye opener to me…so many tricks and tells. That Quinol is so good is evident in his reading of his friends when away from the casino tables.

The story is a slow burner to start with, as the scene is set with a lot of information about the characters and the backstory. However, once the secret is won, the action hots up. Telling the story via the point of view of several of the key characters works well and gives a rounded perspective.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the “hero” was flawed and questioned his own motives and morals, whilst trying to protect the ones he loves.

One grumble…the blurb gives away too much of the storyline before you even start.

Thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the eARC as part of #TheWriteReads blog tour.

Wilthaven by Oli Jacobs

Blurb

A quiet English town that thrives on local produce, old fashioned values, and survival against the rule of an Eldritch Abomination. Here, you will enjoy endless walks, soothing sounds, forceful avatars, and the kind of joys that only an English township can bring!

(Please note: this dossier has been compiled by the BPD based on materials found relating to P1983 – or Wilthaven as you know it. Treat every sentence, word, image, and syllable with the utmost paranoia. Be safe.)

Wilthaven is a horror comedy.

Review

Wilthaven exists but it doesn’t.

The Bureau of Paranormal Discoveries (BPD) has been investigating it for many years. Reports, recordings and documents, as well as encounters with residents of Wilthaven, are presented here, building up the history of a place not in our dimension, in order to decide if it is threat to our way of life.

In Wilthaven, the normal rules of science and nature do not apply.

The Crest family has been in charge for generations. The Wilthaven Way is their code of conduct.

There is a nighttime curfew and severe consequences for those who do not comply with it, but not from the authorities of the town. For those that do comply, a good night’s sleep is not guaranteed.

Do not go into the Wilthaven woods. You may or may not come out. If you do, you will never be the same again.

How did the materials related to Wilthaven come to exist in different worldwide locations in our dimension? What happened and is still happening there? What are the origins of the scratching and screaming during the hours of darkness? Who are the avatars? So many questions (and also shivers) arise from reading this dossier. A few laugh out loud moments too.

The materials are presented in the order they were uncovered, not chronologically. This leaves the reader piecing the story together part by part, which I liked. The items recovered are not always complete. However, the missing/lost sections confidently leave a lot to the reader’s imagination: a feeling of unease, a building horror of what happens to the people who encounter whatever is actually ruling Wilthaven, because it is definitely not the Mayor.

The drip feeding of information, the frustration of missing (damaged or retracted) details, linking the story together as each item in the dossier is revealed was, for me, very reminiscent of reading Michael Crichton. High praise!

There is also a sub story concerning the agents who document and act on the materials. The dossier format cleverly allows us to follow this via the lead agents summaries and Director’s notes.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Oli Jacobs’ spine tingling work.

I received this book to read and review as part of the 2021 BBNYA competition and the BBNYA tours organised by the TWR Tour team. All opinions are my own, unbiased and honest.

BBNYA is a yearly competition where Book Bloggers from all over the world read and score books written by indie authors. If you are an author and wish to learn more about the BBNYA competition, you can visit the official website http://www.bbnya.com or twitter @bbnya_official. 

The sign-ups will soon be open for the 2022 BBNYA competition, be it for authors to enter their books, or for bloggers wanting to be part of the new panel, so keep your eyes peeled!!

Book Info

Publisher: Independently published

Length: 362 Pages

Date Published: April 27th, 2020

About the Author

Oli Jacobs is a bearded chap who enjoys spinning a yarn or two. While now a hermit, he has been rumoured to be seen drinking beer and enjoying chicken in the wilds of Southampton. If seen, please approach gently as he has severe anxiety and may cry.

As well as Wilthaven, Oli has also written other Horror (The Children of Little Thwopping, The Station 17 Chronicles), Comedy (the Kirk Sandblaster series), Thriller (the Mr Blank series), and short stories (the Filmic Cuts series).

As always, he hopes you enjoy.

Punch by Barbara Henderson

This is not a new book, it was published in 2017. I discovered it by chance, having seen a different book on Twitter and following a link to the publisher’s website (@cranachanbooks https://www.cranachanpublishing.co.uk/ ). Being Scottish, with a fascination for Victorian times and also Punch and Judy, I obviously ordered it. I also ordered some other books, but that is for another blog.

Punch tells the story of Phineas, an orphan living in 1889 Inverness under the volatile guardianship of his “Uncle” Ewan. He is sent on a nighttime errand, which ends with the town market halls being set on fire. Falsely accused and justifiably scared of the reaction of his guardian and the police, Phineas goes on the run.

He forms unlikely alliances with an escaped prisoner and a family of travelling entertainers on his journey, which includes encounters with a dancing bear and Queen Victoria. He learns new skills, including becoming a puppeteer. He also has a bounty on his head, wanted for arson. Can he clear his name? Can he resolve his issues with his turbulent past? How he became orphaned is haunting him. This and way he was treated by his guardian means he struggles with trusting his new companions. Are they on his side or biding their time to turn him in for the money?

Barbara Henderson has written a gripping story based on a true event (the market halls in Inverness did burn down). The strength of this story is in the characters: their backstory, their relationships with each other, how they support each other to make sense of what has happened to them and how they finally resolve misunderstandings of their own and other people.

Themes of broken families, living with a bullying adult, friendship and trust run through the story, as does compassion, hope and love. When I took a break from reading, I was thinking of Phineas and his predicament and I wanted to get back to it as soon as possible…the sign of a very good book. I plan to read more of Barbara’s books.

The cover art, which I love, is by Corinna Bahr.

Medusa by Jessie Burton Illustrated by Olivia Lomenech Gill

Exiled, with her sisters, to a far-flung island by the whims of the gods, Medusa has little company except the snakes that adorn her head instead of hair. But when a charming boy called Perseus arrives on the island, lost as he sails the seas on a quest to save his mother, her lonely existence is disrupted with the force of a supernova, unleashing desire, love and betrayal…

The stunning illustrations throughout the book, by Olivia Lomenech Gill really being the island world of Medusa alive.

Jessie Burton has retold this myth superbly, bring it bang up to date with the feminist slant it very much needed. It is told from the view point of Medusa and because of this, the themes come across much more emotionally and with impact.

As Medusa and Perseus gradually tell each other their reasons for being on this far-flung island, we can see that perception of themselves and others is a very personal thing. Perseus holds Poseidon in high regard, Medusa hates him with a vengeance. Similarly, their views on Athena differ too.

There are strong themes of self worth, perception of how you are viewed by others and how this affects your behaviours and attitudes, how the opinions (real or perceived) of others impact on you and ultimately change you.

There are strong themes of consent and respect. Medusa’s feelings of how Poseidon should have behaved towards her (as opposed to abusing his power) and how she was not to blame are deeply felt. Her sisters’ allyship is strong but not all other women are her ally. Athena’s use of privilege and power are selectively abusive.

The promises we make…do we actually know what we are promising at the time? Open ended promises are not always good ones.

Throughout the retelling, Medusa’s view of herself, others in her life and her awareness of how the rest of the world perceives her opens up opportunities for conversations to be had. Important conversations.

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the eARC review copy.

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

Cover art by Paddy Donnelly

It is always a good sign when a book starts with a map.

One of the amazing things about Philip Reeve is his ability to create and write about such vastly different worlds in such a way that they come alive on the pages, are usually characters that affect the storyline and live on in your head for a long, long time.

That the same person created and wrote Mortal Engines, Railhead, Larklight (amongst others) and now Utterly Dark is a magical mystery to me. But I am so happy that he did.

Utterly Dark is a foundling, washed up on the shores of the Autumn Isles and taken in by Andrewe Dark, the mysterious Watcher of Wildsea. When her guardian walks into the ocean one day and drowns, Utterly is thrust into the role of Watcher… can she keep the island safe from the threat of the terrifying Gorm? Unforeseen mysteries lie beneath the ocean’s surface. Adventure beckons, and Utterly will unearth astonishing secrets about the sea, her parents and life itself. Wildsea will never be the same again…

I read this in one sitting…always the sign of a good read.

Reeve has created characters with depth, with a backstory in lore, sea witches, sea and land magic and unbelievers.

As Utterly grows, develops friendships and trust in those around her, and learns of her surroundings, the Hidden Islands, the role of the Watcher, the history of Wildsea and its inhabitants over the generations, she struggles to understand her role in what is happening. The sea, its power, mystery and stories invade her dreams. She feels she is being watched all time time and wonders why.

The sea around Wildsea is alive, takes lives and sometimes offers bodies back to the land, is full of mysterious water dragons, Men o’ Weed and other lorish creatures. Why is it so interested in Utterly? Who should she believe…the written logs of her adoptive father (The Watcher)? Her uncle who moved away from the island many years ago and has forgotten the pull of belief in the folklore? Her new friends Aish and Egg (who refuse to touch or go near the sea)? The sea witch, Thurza Froy, who lost her husband to the hidden depths?

Relationships are at the heart of this story and what ultimately help Utterly when she has a choice to make. I think we can all relate to that.

P.S. I grew up crushing eggshells before throwing them away. I still do it. I had been told that if I didn’t, witches would sail to sea in them and sink boats. Uncle Will obviously got told the same story!

From Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

Thanks to NetGalley and David Fickling Books for the eARC.

The Memory Thieves by Darren Simpson (due out 5 Aug 2021)

What you don’t remember can’t hurt you…

Cyan has lived at the Elsewhere Sanctuary for as long as he can remember, freed by Dr Haven from dark memories of his past life. But when Cyan finds a mysterious warning carved into the bones of a whale skeleton, he starts to wonder what he had to forget to be so happy.

New resident, Jonquil, begins to resist the sanctuary’s treatment, preferring to hold on to her memories – even the bad ones. So when Dr Haven resorts to harsher measures, Cyan embarks on a secret mission to discover the truth about the sanctuary…and himself.

This is an intricately constructed dystopian world, a mixture of what we know blended with sci-fi … an island where the tide went out and never came back again, no wildlife, an invisible boundary shield, a building that can reset its rooms (like 3D Tetris), tracking devices, clocks with no hands, memory suppressing drugs and teenagers who just want to forget.

The themes tackled in this story are difficult ones and raise many ethical questions. Guilt, sorrow, medically induced memory loss, secret experimental drug trials.

Through the story, the author helps us to see that all our memories, experiences and feelings make us who we are, mould us into the people we become. Just because you cannot remember a key event or person does not mean you are no longer unaffected, even subconsciously.

Despite the difficult themes and my worry for what comes next for the characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was engrossed in the lives of the characters and the world they inhabited. This is the first book I have read by Darren Simpson but it definitely won’t be the last.

Thank you to NetGalley and Usborne for the eARC.

Adam-2 by Alastair Chisholm (due out 5 Aug 2021)

Adam-2, a robot, has been locked in the basement of a lost building for over two hundred years, following a daily routine – until one day he is discovered by two children, and emerges into a world ruined by a civil war between humans and advanced intelligence. Hunted by both sides, Adam discovers that he holds the key to the war, and the power to end it – to destroy one side and save the other. But which side is right? Surrounded by enemies who want to use him, and allies who mistrust him, Adam must decide who – and what – he really is.

Over the past few years, there has been a distinct lack of Sci-fi books for children. Thankfully, this situation is changing. This is Chisholm’s second, and is even better than his debut in this genre, Orion Lost, which was excellent.

Adam-2 is told from two points of view – the robot, Adam-2, and one of the humans, Linden. It is good to finally read a story with a non binary main character (using the pronouns ze/hir), who is integral to the plot.

Adam-2 is not like the other robots, he can think and imagine scenarios, not just follow programmed orders. He can learn and apply his knowledge. He is also immune to the EMP charges that the humans use to temporarily disable robots they fight against. Adam-2 has to work out what has happened to create, and prolong, the long term war between the humans and robots and find a way to end the war to bring peace.

There are various themes throughout – war/peace, friendships, family, trust and the rights and wrong of developing AI. Via Linden, and the influence hir mother (and her death) has on hir, we witness the struggle to work out the right path to take and also the power of telling stories, both to the teller and the audience.

I enjoyed Adam-2 and thoroughly recommend it. 5 star plus.

Thanks to NetGalley and Nosy Crow for the eARC.

Mystery of the Night Watchers by A.M. Howell

MAY, 1910. As the blazing Halley’s comet draws close to the earth, Nancy is uprooted to start a new life in Suffolk with a grandfather she has never met. With every curtain drawn shut, Nancy is forbidden from leaving her grandfather’s house: no one must know that her or her mother are there.

Yet, when Nancy discovers the house’s secret observatory, she watches her mother and grandfather creep out every night… Where are they going? And why mustn’t any of them be seen? Why does the Mayor hate her grandfather? As the mysteries pile up, Nancy has to bring dark secrets from the past to light – even if doing so will put her own life at risk.

A.M. Howell has done it again. A very enjoyable, mysterious, quick-paced adventure with many secrets being revealed to Nancy about her family as she investigates what her mother and grandfather are up to. Some of the secrets she is happy to discover, a couple not so much. The story is about family, the secrets they keep (and the reasons why), trust, power (how not to use it) and standing up for what you know to be the right thing, no matter how difficult it is or who it is you are standing up against. Sometimes you can be surprised by who else will stand with you once you start.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love a map in the front of a book. A.M. Howell doesn’t disappoint, featuring a map of 1910 Bury St. Edmunds as brought to life by Nancy and friends.

I was provided with an eARC of this book by NetGalley and Usborne Publishing. It is published on 8th July 2021.