Category Archives: Blogging

Reality Testing by Grant Price

Over the course of recent months and years, I have come to the firm belief that whatever is in store for humanity, it’s not going to be good. Too many countries have elected indiduals to positions of power who have no right to be there. They have little experience or worse, they couldn’t care less what happens to the people they were elected by and the world around them. To them it’s all about power and how to maintain it. They pay lip service to climate change, and brush the refugee crisis under the carpet. To them, such catastrophes are always someone else’s problem. Very few novels published today focus on what happens when things go well for humanity, instead dydtopian fiction forms the bedrock of a lot of speculative fiction you see in bookstores or online, especially since 2016. In short, bad news sells books.

But that doesn’t mean these books are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Some of them are really good. Allow me to introduce you to Reality Testing, by Berlin-based author Grant Price. You’re probably familiar with the cyberpunk genre, made famous by William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which combines a hi-tech futuristic setting with general societal degradation: basically the rich get richer and have access to all the mod cons in technology, and the poor are so far down the bottom of the ladder they have no chance of improving their lot in life. The Berlin of Grant Price’s novel is a perfect example of a society gone worng. It’s the aftermath of the Second Water War, and the Big Five conglomerates have taken control of the city and its citizens, advertising their products and services in very obtrusive ways. They say their technology and policies are in aid of the failing environment, whereas in fact they’re outbidding and out-manoeuvering each other to get a bigger slice of the pie. Automatons known as bulls patrol the streets, dishing out instant justice for even the most petty of crimes. Citizens make ends meet how they can, working enough jobs to ensure they get cheap food and entertainment. Mara Hinzig gets a lot more than she bargains for when she signs up for a gig which will allow her to be paid while she undergoes a few months of sleep in a programme called LINK, run by Ahe+d, and overseen by the mysterious Klaus Koje.

Grant Price

Mara wakes up next to a dead body. She’s got blood on her hands and she has no idea what happened. She runs for it and ends up at the door of her ex-partner Jema. The only problem is, the body Mara how inhabits isn’t her own. Not only is she wanted for a murder she doesn’t remember committing, but she now has a face she doesn’t recognise and a voice inside her head is giving her instructions and at times taking control over her body. This is not a good time to be Mara. When tragedy ensues, Mara is driven literally underground, where she meets a cohort of individuals who either want to kill her, turn her over to the authorities for a reward. Price creates a beautifully realised subterranean world with characters that are unique and off-the-wall crazy. I loved Mantis and Prestone, both augmented and damaged human beings, victims of circumstance and hubris. With their help, Mara is led to another part of Germany where the mythical Vanguard await. There she finds a group of people, mainly women, who live off-grid, and with the aid of the Abbot, the group’s leader, she tries to understand what’s happening to her and how she can get revenge on Koje. Her right-hand man is Daniel Van Morden, a veteran with a secret of his own. Along with Abbadine, Xi Yang, and Theo, Mara plots a way to get back control of her life and identity.

Reality Testing is a fast-paced and action-packed novel that I raced through in a couple of sittings. It brought back memories of Total Recall, Minority Report, and Blade Runner. The aesthetics are similar but Price tells his own story. This is a world that is terrifying, where life has little value, and where the stakes are so high, it’s obvious that not everyone is going to come through unscathed. I especially enjoyed the author’s depiction of a society where, despite everything else going on, people are allowed to be whatever they prefer to be: gender is fluid, and non-binary characters are front and centre of this fascinating future. Grant Price makes us think about how the next step in human evolution might look, and we wonder whether or not it would be best for the planet and ourselves if we just die off as a species and let the Earth start again. There are no easy answers, but there are plenty of adventures to have in the meantime.

Bonus Review: The Devil’s Mistress by David Barclay

California based David Barclay’s novella The Devil’s Mistress is a quick and involving read that left with me with a ton of questions I need answering, the most relevant one being: Is that it? Yes, I know it’s a novella, but there is so much mythos to explore in the story’s setting that I hope the author comes back for more.

The year is 1705, the town is Blackfriar, Virginia, in a country that has yet to shake off its British colonizers and puritanical roots. Isabella Ashcroft is in fear for her father’s life and when the story begins she’s making a dangerous late-night dash to the legendary and feared Lady of the Hill. The Lady offers to help Isabelle with her problem, but there will be a price–there’s always a price to pay when you deal with forces you can’t even begin to understand, and when words have more than one meaning.

Isabelle’s worries are not just confined to her father’s failing health, but she’s also betrothed to a man with such callous disregard for human life. Don’t forget, this is a time when rich white people had slaves and treated them abominably. For me, this is and will always be the real horror. Thomas Huxley and his mother, Marianne, are characters that are without redemption and will deserve their fate when it arrives. But I digress.

Events overtake Isabelle and she finds herself accused not only of murder but of witchcraft. The novella then races towards its grisly and brutal climax. Barclay finely balances his writing, mixing historical accuracy with the necessary components of a horror/revenge story. Overall I liked it, but for me, I would like to see a deeper exploration of the themes. Particularly in the story behind the story: there is so much to written and characters to be developed even before The Devil’s Mistress begins. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the novella is what we don’t yet know. I ask David Barclay to give us more.

The Devil’s Mistress was published on March 16, 2021, by Silver Shamrock Publishing, and I thank them for providing me with a copy to review here.

David Barclay

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

One of the best things about signing up to a NetGalley account is knowing you have a better than even chance of coming across a book that, while it is yet to be published, you can read it before most other people, and then tell the world how great it is, knowing somehow you’ve done your part to boost its success in the eyes of its authors, publishers, and future readers. All this to say, I’ve just finished reading The Kingdoms by British writer Natasha Pulley and you should at this very moment stop what you’re doing and order it from whatever online service works for you. This book is a heart-breaking but life-affirming masterpiece, all wrapped up in a plot that is complex and poignant.

The Kingdoms is initially set in the year 1898, where Natasha Pulley imagines an alternate history in which England lost the Battle of Trafalgar to France, resulting in the French invading London and installing itself as the ruling power and households now have English people as slaves. There is resistance from Scotland, where a group known as the Saints fight back when and where they can. Joe Tournier steps off a train in London having travelled from Edinburgh and finds that his hold on reality is vanishing rapidly. An enforced stay at a psychiatric hospital reveals he suffers from a type of amnesia brought on by epileptic episodes. Eventually he is identified and returned to a family that has enslaved him. He has a wife he doesn’t recognise and life he’s not familiar with, but he gets by because it’s what’s expected of him. His world is further turned upside down when he receives a postcard from someone called ‘M’, dated nearly 100 years in the past. Through a series of events and choices, Joe makes his way to Edinburgh, to the lighthouse pictured on the postcard, and soon he’s in another time and place.

Joe is the character through which we experience this new world, but he’s not the only person we connect to. Missouri Kite is a Spanish pirate who has joined the English resistance and using the portal near the lighthouse though which ships can travel from one time to another, he kidnaps Joe hoping to use the man’s knowledge of future technology to reshape the past and restore balance and history. But with every action in the past, the future itself becomes uncertain. Joe is afraid that if he helps Missouri and his sister Agatha then he will lose his own place in time and his daughter may very well fade into non-existence. But he feels a profound connection to the Spaniard, and there’s almost a symbiotic relationship between the two. There is more going on between then than meets the eye.

Natasha Pulley (via author’s website)

Two things must be real for me to enjoy a book, particularly one from the genre of speculative fiction and fantasy. The world-building while complex must ring true, and the characters have to jump out of the page and hold you until their story is done, leaving you to pick up the pieces of your life when the book is finished. I read the last two or three chapters of The Kingdoms twice, not because I needed to fully understand what was happening to the world, but because I wanted to feel my feelings again. The ending is beautiful. If I say anything more, I could end up spoiling the book. If you have read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, then you’ll know what to expect from The Kingdoms. I haven’t, but now I want to.

The Kingdoms is historical speculative fiction at its finest. I fell in love with Joe and Missouri. I sympathised and empathised with their plights. My heart broke more than once for Agatha. The battle scenes are butal and history, whichever one it ends up being, never felt more vibrant and fluid. I thank NetGalley and the book’s publishers for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. I also wish to thank Natasha Pulley for writing such a beautiful and thrilling novel. I will look out for more of her work in the future.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I found Firebreak purely by chance. I was scrolling through NetGalley recommendations, not really sure what genre I was looking to read, but basically I wanted something to jump out at me. Literally grab me by the scruff of my neck and say, “Read me, you fool!” I couldn’t see anything immediately, but soon after I got an email from NetGalley, singing “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” There, slap bang in the body of email was indeed the book I was looking for.

You don’t have to be much of a political commentator to know that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket. Authoritarian, nationalist and populist governments are the norm rather than the exception in practically every economy on the planet. These are scary times, and there doesn’t seem to be a way through the gloom right now. But as bad as it all appears to be, you cannot discount the indomitable nature of humanity. Author Nicole Kornher-Stace‘s first novel for adults is full of this spirit, and it’s badly needed.

It is 2134 and what’s left of the United States of America after ecological and economic disaster is divided up between two super-corporations, Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf Industries. Stellaxis controls the water supply, while Greenleaf controls all elements of agriculture. The two are permantly at war with each other but have reached a stalemate with New Liberty City. Mal and her friends live on the outside, in the old town, copped up together in a hotel room. Their water is rationed; power goes off in the evenings; and they work as many jobs as they can to ensure they can pay for the things we take for granted. They have barely enough to get by, but there’s always the chance they might find themselves in a dehydration clinic if they don’t get enough water. A visit there would cost them more than they could pay. To make ends meet, and to keep themselves entertained, Mal and her friends livestream themselves as they game away on SecOps on BestLife, Stellaxis’s wargame. The more successful they are at the game, the more sponsorship they get, coming in the form of cash, weaponry for the game, and credit for water. A chance meeting with one of Stellaxis’s Non-Player Characters (NPC), known as 22, brings Mal and her best friend Jessa in contact with B, a mysterious new sponsor who tells them the true origins of the NPCs.

Firebreak begins in the middle of a livestream and once you settle in and get comfortable with the pace and environment, Nicole throws in a conspiracy that changes the nature of the story and characters. Mal isn’t what you may call a sociable person; she leaves the talking to Jessa, who’s like the manager of their partnership. They’re a duo, with each bringing their special qualities to the table. Jessa narrates their adventures online while Mal racks up the points with kills and bravado. But all this changes when they come to the attention of Stellaxis, and that’s when their lives and the lives of their friends are put in danger.

Nicole Kornher-Stace (image: Fantasy Book Critic)

A good novel, whatever the genre, lives or dies by its characters and character development. Mal and Jessa are introduced as fully-formed individuals and over the course of Firebreak grow in ways they probably thought not possible. All they want to do is live to game another day, but they’re not selfish people. Everything they have, they share with their friends, and this becomes important as the book nears its climax. This selflessness has its rewards. All throughout, Nicole Kornher-Stace treats us to action scenes that don’t hold back on violence or consequence. Our heroes are bloodied but unbowed. Nicole has created a frightening world, one which should serve as a lesson to us all: we are one major disaster away from everything we hold dear and take for granted crashing to the ground around us.

Firebreak is an exhilerating and exciting read, replete with vibrant and conflicted characters, in a world that is both real and unreal. It could be our future. Pray it’s not.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers of Firebreak for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel is on sale now.

Books That Shaped Me: The Prince of Tides

I’ve sat looking at the title of this blog for the last half an hour or so, wondering if “shape” is the right word to use. I mean, I know what I want to say, but “shape” could be off-putting. But then again, maybe not. I guess what I’m trying to say is, until I picked up a book most of the world was unknown to me, apart from whatever my parents and teachers told me. I had to find a lot out by myself. As much as I loved TV shows growing up (I still do: if you look at my Twitter feed, I’m all about Line of Duty these days), when I opened a book and immersed myself in whatever literary world I decided to inhabit at the time, I learned more about human nature and human relationships that anything I heard in a classroom or a church pulpit. The genre didn’t matter; we humans act the same whatever the setting, wherever we find ourselves. So I think it’s right to say that as I grew into my reading, certain books impacted me in ways that still sit with me years and even decades later. Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides is one of those books.

Published in 1986, The Prince of Tides is the story of former football player and high-school teacher and coach Tom Wingo. Married with three young daughters, he has a twin sister, Savannah, a poet who lives in New York, who has had mental health issues since she was a child. Another suicide attempt uproots Tom from his home and family in South Carolina to his sister’s side. In doing so, he leaves behind his own mess: his wife Sallie is having an affair, and he’s not surprised by this at all. Clearly a number of things aren’t right with the Wingo family.

Tom meets his sister’s psychiatrist, a beautiful Jewish woman called Susan Lowenstein, and she challenges Tom to fill in the blanks in Savannah’s and his family history. It’s a journey down memory lane that is both traumatising and eventually healing. Along the way Tom and Susan form a relationship that is combatative but respectful. They come from very different backgrounds, financially and culturally, but Susan’s husband is indifferent to her and is also having an affair. So they have a lot in common when it comes to intimate relationships. Tom and Susan have an affair of their own, which changes how each of them views life, love, and family by the end.

I wasn’t familiar with Pat Conroy before I picked up this book in the early 1990s. I knew about the movie version, though, but hadn’t at the time seen it. I may have chosen to read the book because of the movie, being a fan of Barbra Streisand’s film and music career, and also who doesn’t love a bit of Nick Nolte. I followed his career from his Rich Man, Poor Man days. Perhaps I may have picked up The Prince of Tides because of its theme of family relationships and how they can, if they’re not nurtured and allowed to grow, mess up even the most steadfast of people. I confess to not being in the best of places in life when reading this book. Outwardly I might have looked like I was doing okay, but inside I was close to being a mess. I flitted between jobs and missed a couple of really good opportunities to do well in life and personal relationships, but I found myself making one bad decision after another, all of which had my family wondering where the hell my common sense had gone. I was also drinking too much (something Mr Nolte can relate to), and it took me another decade to do something about that.

Pat Conroy’s writing, however, sang to me. I don’t think there’s one author out there whose prose style has touched me in the way Conroy’s did. You would be surprised to know, though, that I never read any of his other books; this despite him being the author of recognised classic American novels like The Great Santini, Beach Music, and The Lords of Discipline. I don’t know why this it. It could be that I’m afraid to read an author who, though he came from a completely different background to me, seems to know what I’m about. That is scary.

Pat Conroy (image: The Guardian)

Writers and readers will ask the question of themselves and others: what draws you to a book–is it the plot or is it characters? For me, any writer worth their salt can plot a book until the cows come home. It’s the easiest part, in my opinion: Lord knows I’ve plotted enough books and stories over the last 15 years to fill a dozen trilogies. But characters are the key. Pat Conroy deep-dived into the hearts and souls of every character he put in The Prince of Tides. Only the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King, could consistently do this book after book after book, regardless of the plot. I’m sure Pat Conroy did the same, but I’ve got to pluck up the courage to read another of his works. Maybe soon, who knows.

The Reincarnationist Papers by D. Eric Maikranz

In July of last year million of us around the globe sat down to watch the latest hit movie to come from Netflix. The Old Guard starred Charlize Theron as Andromache (Andy) of Scythia, one of a group of near immortal beings, masquerading among us mere humans as soldiers of fortune, mercenaries travelling the globe taking on causes to help humanity. It was as action-packed as it was thought-provoking, drawing on the myth, and sometimes the hope, that gods live alongside us.

In 2009, author D. Eric Maikranz self-published his debut novel, The Reincarnationist Papers, urging his readers to act as agents and promote his book to Hollywood movie producers. Fast forward to this year, 2021, Infinite, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Mark Wahlberg, based on Maikranz’s novel, is scheduled for release in September. I’m really looking forward to the forthcoming adaptation, because this book is really good.

Like The Old Guard, The Reincarnationist Papers tells the story of a group of people who live forever. Unlike the heroes of Theron’s movie, the characters in Maikranz’s book age and die naturally. Some die by other means, but in the main, when their bodies die, their souls are reincarnated into another newborn body. The concept behind this is, I think, we all reincarnate but only a very, very small number of us remember our previous lives. This is what happens to the main character, Evan Michaels, who from an early age can recall two previous lives: a Bulgarian who fought in World War I; and a young boy from Georgia in the United States who died in a fire. Needless to say, these memories mess him up and when we meet Evan, he’s a professional arsonist, making money from people defrauding insurance companies, and contemplating suicide. When a job threatens to go south on him, he’s rescued by Poppy, a mysterious woman who lives with her servant in an abandoned church. She nurses Evan back to health and tells him a story he doesn’t quite understand but nevertheless is close to believing.

D. Eric Maikranz

Poppy is one of an elite group of 27 people who can remember their previous lives. She is convinced that Evan is another reincarnated soul, but he must meet the other members and prove his worthiness through a trial known as Ascension. The book then takes Evan and the reader on a journey through time and memory. Maikranz backs up his main story with plenty of thought-provoking and philosophical discussion about life without death. I found these sections fascinating and important to the story as a whole. Peppered throughout are narratives about Evan’s and Poppy’s previous lives. We learn more about most of the other members of the Cognomina (the name they give themselves), who meet up in Zurich every year on Midsummer’s Day. They are rich beyond comprension and Evan wants –needs — to be part of this family.

My favourite characters are Samas, an art collector who has his own agenda for Evan; and Poppy herself, who is mercurial and not altogether trustworthy. These beings, despite being long-lived, have human needs and traits, and each of them has a backstory that could fill another book or two in this series. Maikranz has a second book coming out in the near future, too, thank goodness: Evan and his new family practically demand it.

Also available from the author is a free-to-read origin prequel, which serves as an interesting prologue to the main book. I recommend you read this first, though it’s not a prequisite. D. Eric Maikranz has written a little beauty here, full of great characters and excellent story-telling. If you have the slightest interest in life and rebirth, I don’t hesitate in asking you to read The Reincarnationist Papers. Don’t wait for the movie.

The Children God Forgot by Graham Masterton

I have a soft spot in my black little heart for the works of horror maestro Graham Masterton. Some time in the eighties I must have read close to a dozen of the author’s early work. Personal favourites were The Manitou, Charnel House, and for me, the daddy of them all, The Devils of D-Day, a crazy book that placed demons, angels, and all kinds of mythological beings right at the heart of WWII. I thought it magnificent.

(Image: HorrifiedMagazine.co.uk)

Masterton’s books are literal page-turners. He wastes no time in setting the scene and getting straight into the beat of the story. In his most recent book, The Childen God Forgot, we’re thrown into a series of freaky situations that have doctors and police officers baffled. The setting is multi-cultural London, and our main characters DS Jamila Patel and DC Jerry Pardoe, who appeared in a previous book, Ghost Virus, have to deal with a strange occurence in the depths of London’s sewage system. A man has gone missing, and his colleagues tell a horrifying story of malformed children and an eerie green light. When the man is eventually found, he’s in serious condition, with his life hanging on a thread.

At the same time, a number of women are tormented by creatures that appear in their wombs despite not being pregnant, but having either aborted a foetus or miscarried one. These creatures have the faces of cherubs but have bodies that cannot be defined as human. Yet they live. And they are protected by a mysterious presence who will kill to defend her ‘nestlings’.

Graham Masterton

Graham Masterton has a way with grotesque set-pieces. He doesn’t pull any punches with his action scenes, and violent dismemberment or death is never far away for any of the characters in these pages. DS Patel and DC Pardoe are an engaging duo, reminiscent of Mulder and Scully in the early days of The X Files. They get the cases no other branch will go near, and often place themselves in danger when others would just cut and run. The truth is not so much out there, but under London, in the sewers.

The Children God Forgot is a great and pacy read. You’ll get exactly what you ask for and expect in a Graham Masterton novel. He makes use of his characters cultural differences to good effect, with DS Patel’s Asian background coming in to play a lot of the time. Masterton has always had a strong feel for the supernatural, and the research he did for this book is there for all to see and read. I enjoyed this book, and it reminded me of a more innocent time when I devoured his early books. He’s been prolific ever since, and I look forward to a return journey into the dark heart of Masterton’s world.

The Time Roads by Claire O’Dell

Claire O’Dell says that The Time Roads is a story about murder, mathematics, and time. It is, but it’s also a deft, complex, and at times explosive political thriller, with characters that are well-drawn, intriguing, and who seek to understand the truth about the world they live in.

Eire is the country of my birth. You will know it as Ireland, a small island nation whose nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has a rather fractious history with it. Ireland spent generations fighting for its independence from its British masters, ultimately gaining sovereignty through a series of rebellions, a civil war, and then political agreement which resulted in the six counties of Northern Ireland remaining under British control. This divide continues to have repercussions in this new Brexit era.

But what if none of this happened? What if Eire was the dominant force in Europe, and the Anglian Dependencies sought independence for themselves? Claire O’Dell creates such a world. Alba (Scotland) is independent, but Anglia, Cymru, Manx, and Wight are subjects to Queen Aine Lasairiona Devereaux and her court of Lords at Cill Cannig, where the kings and queens of Eire had lived for six centuries. It’s a marvellous concept, one I found so intriguing that I had to get a copy to read for myself. I love speculative fiction that takes in alternate history.

Aine takes the throne after her father, the king, passes away suddenly. She is young, idealistic, and looks to a future where there is a league of nations, where there is peace and prosperity. But not every nation is willing to be part of this prototype U.N, though. There are anarchists in Europe who are willing to fracture time itself to stop this from happening. This happens because, at the start of the book, Aine funds the research of a scientist, Breandan O’Cuilinn, who has found a way to move objects into the future. There is a spark of romance between Aine and Breandan, further complicated by the arrival of Commander Aidrean O Deaghaidh, a former spy who’s now enlisted in the queen’s Constabulary, the Garda. There is a hint of a love triangle, but following a series of gruesome murders, and a tragic death, the story goes down a couple of roads that are literally fractures in time.

Claire 0’Dell

The Time Roads consists of four interlinked novellas, set years apart from one another. The Golden Octopus focuses on events in November 1897, which I have related in previous paragraph. We meet Aine, Breandan, Aidrean, and the many lords who make up the queen’s parliament of advisers. The second novella, A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange, is set in September 1902, and this is where the tale becomes more complex. We meet Siomon Madoc, a student of mathematics at Awveline University, whose sister Gwen is a resident at a sanitorium and does nothing all day but reel out sequences of prime numbers. Murders occur, or do they? Aidrean is investigating, but things are not what they seem. Time itself if fracturing.

The third novella, Ars Memoriae, is a good old-fashioned spy story, with Aidrean going undercover in eastern Europe, at great danger to his physical and mental well-being, as he attempts to root out anarchists and traitors to the cause. The book concludes with a section called The Time Roads, where Aine and Aidrean must confront a future that cannot be allowed to happen. It’s 1914 now, and the queen is older and wiser, and knows she has to stop a war that would destroy all she holds dear. She must travel along the time roads themselves.

As I wrote earlier, this is a complex story, one that held my attention from the first page. Claire O’Dell does some great world-building here, and while I would have liked to know more about this Europe and its nations of Frankonia, Prussia, the Turkish States, as well as the new world of Mexica, what information she gives to move her story along serves its purpose. There is a grander story taking place in this world, and Eire is at the centre of is. Being Irish myself, this is as it should be.

Previously published in 2014, writing as Beth Bernobich, Claire O’Dell repackaged The Time Roads for Kindle recently. It’s definitely worth reading, and taking your time as you do. There’s a lot going on, and at times you might find yourself puzzled by what’s going on. But rest assured, while not all answers are forthcoming, the resolution is gratifying and uplifting. Time can be our enemy, but if we use it wisely, it can be our greatest ally.

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 1-4

Greetings, dear reader. I wrote in a previous blog that it was my plan to read Alexandre Dumas pere‘s classic adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo over the course of the next couple of months, taking it three or four chapters at a time. Well, the time has come. Today, I will focus on the opening four chapters of this mammoth 118 chapter long novel. As stated earler, the edition I’m reading from Canterbury Classics, and was published in 2013. I picked it up from Amazon before Christmas for about $15. It has a soft faux-leather cover, and it’s pretty.

The story begins on the morning of February 24, 1815. The date itself is important for historical reasons, but it’s not yet apparent to the characters we meet in these initial chapters why this is. Edmond Dantes disembarks the merchant ship Pharaon at Marseilles. He’s had an eventful journey which took in unscheduled stops at the islands of Monte Cristo and, more importantly for the story, Elba, where a certain former emperor of France lies in exile. Dantes lands there because his fatally ill captain, Leclere, wishes to deliver a package to Napoleon’s marshall. In return he is to take a letter to Paris. Dantes, out of fealty to his captain, agrees to continue this mission when Leclere passes away from a brain fever. Dantes is a good man, but he doesn’t ask the obvious question, and this lands him in huge trouble on home soil.

In double quick time, we meet the Conspirators, and their individual reasons for wanting Dantes out of their lives. Because Dantes acquitted himself well when his captain died (he’s the ship’s mate when we’re introduced to him), his employer wants to make him captain. For one so young (Dantes is barely in his twenties), this is a dream come true. M. Danglars, the supercargo (representative of the owner on board the Pharaon), took a dislike to Dantes from the off and is none too pleased about this rapid promotion. When Dantes goes to see his elderly father, he is horrified to find out that the money he left with his dad to take care of himself while Dantes was at sea, was given instead to their neighbour Caderousse, a drunkard, because of a debt he and Dantes had. The elder Dantes was forced to live on 60 francs for three months. There’s not even a bottle of wine in the house. When Caderousse finds out that Edmond is back, he sees another opportunity to squeeze the man and his father for more money.

Edmond is still unaware of how his return to land and his apparent rise up the ranks sits badly with some of the men around him. No sooner has he said hi to his dad, he’s away to Catalan to meet up with the love of his life, Mercedes Herrera. Unfortunately for Edmond, he has a rival for the young woman’s affections, her cousin Fernand Mondego. He urges Mercedes not to marry outside her Catalan community, but she’s not having it. She practically falls into Edmond’s arms when he interrupts their awkward conversation. Mercedes expects the two men to become fast friends, but neither men like the cut of the other’s jib (and that’s putting it mildly).

As Edmond and Mercedes look at each other all doe-eyed and begin planning a quick wedding, Fernand, Caderousse, and Danglars drown their collective sorrows over several bottles of wine at a nearby tavern. So how do they solve a problem like Dantes? Simple: they plan to set him up. They realise killing him is out of the question because Mercedes implies that if anything were to happen to Edmond, she would take her own life. Danglars forges a letter to the king’s attorney, telling of Edmond’s planned trip to Paris to deliver a letter on behalf of the usurped emperor. Fernand takes the letter and heads off to the capital, ready to accuse the young man of treason.

So we’re off to a flying start, and we’re only 28 pages in. Dumas wastes very little time in setting up his tale of adventure, betrayal, and revenge. We know Edmond is in for a boat-load of trouble, and we’re unable to warn him and Mercedes. The plot is afoot, and the next few chapters await us.

2020 and All That.

2020 has been the most challenging year many of us have ever faced. Even if we haven’t lost someone close to us, we know someone or a family who has. It’s been a lot. But while the new year won’t bring us a hallelujah moment immediately, it’s important to note that although the light at the end of the tunnel is still far away, we’re moving ever closer to it. We still have to take care of ourselves and those around us, and not do anything silly that could jeopardise our futures.

I’m not going to get all introspective. We each have our own stories to tell about year about to pass, some more heart-breaking than others. But we’re still here. We survived so far. And 2021 is right around the corner.

I’m not one for New Year Resolutions. In fact I got very little done during the year, and it was only in the last month that I put myself in front of my laptop and created this blog. I count that as a win. I read plenty of books, and my TBR pile is gargantuan. But I’ll get through most of them.

Authors and their agents have begun emailing me and DMing me on Twitter, politely requesting reviews for their currently published and upcoming books. I’m cockahoop with joy about this. I intend to get through as many as I can, taking into account I’ve got my own stuff to do this year. (Yes, 2021 will be the year I finish my own novel’s first and, if I’m diligent, second draft of the novel that’s been in my head and computer for years.) I owe it to myself to do this. So, I’ve plenty to look forward to. I think we all need a goal for 2021, even if that goal is personal rather than professional.

I hope that we can, sometime in 2021, go see a movie, eat out at restaurants, and be close to family and friends. We’re human, and there’s nothing more human than being around other people who make us feel good. A lot of us haven’t seen our parents, grandparents, andsignificant others for a long time. But we need to hold out just a little while longer. The wait, I know, will be worth it. We have to do better for ourselves and each other. Also we need to be kind to ourselves and each other. Events of the last year have changed us: it is my hope that they’ve changed us for the better. Time will tell.

So, for my part, I will continue to read, write, and take better care of myself. I have a feeling 2021 will be a banner year for me and the people I love and care about. Let each of us do our part. Live. Learn. Love. Read. Listen to music. Dance and sing. Let us be responsible. Let us welcome in 2021 with hope, but never forget the lessons of 2020.

Happy New Year to you and yours. I’ll see you on the other side for more book reviews, book-related essays, and of course, my attempt to read The Count of Monte Cristo a few chapters at a time. Stay tuned.