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Review: ‘The Fourteenth Letter’ by Claire Evans

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire EvansNo one was more surprised by my enjoyment of Claire Evans’ The Fourteenth Letter than me.  It looked like the kind of book I would enjoy as a fun distraction, but nothing more.  And I was sorely in need of a fun distraction.

The Fourteenth Letter opens with a grisly murder.  What follows is an historical mystery with a classical twist, blending old world British Gothic with new world American ingenuity.  It was a book about madness, privilege and eugenics, and while it didn’t keep me guessing through the whole reading experience, it definitely swept me along for the ride.

I was impressed with Evans’ characterisation.  Her characters were deeply flawed, mysterious, but personable.  Their experiences created a sense of real personal growth.  The William Lamb of the end of the novel was virtually unrecognisable from the character we’d met at the beginning, but his growth and development were so natural that it really gave his character depth.  Savannah Shelton, the American gunslinger as well, was introduced as a rough and hardened criminal.  Even she proved to have real depth, while Evans’ masterfully omitted the details of her erstwhile crimes, leaving the reader to judge the character on her personality and deeds through the novel rather than her sordid past.  The remaining heroes were appropriately heroic, with the generic good-guy police constable who served to move the plot at an even pace, and the villains were appropriately dark and menacing.

The pace, plotting and characterisation, however, were belied by The Fourteenth Letter’s title and branding.  The cover is more evocative of a feminine gothic family saga/romance.  There was nothing that screamed historical murder mystery.  The titular ‘Fourteenth Letter’ as well, was introduced far too late in the plot for it to have any real impact or meaning.  This was the book’s biggest letdown.  The big reveal was hardly a reveal at all, as I hadn’t even known in was an option up until that point.

All in all The Fourteenth Letter was a strong entry into the historical crime genre.  It was a fun read that was equal parts cliché and original that was just really, really enjoyable.

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The Mass Effect Franchise in Review

I’ve come quite late to the Mass Effect franchise.  Despite it being my most recommended game series to date, I just never really felt the urge to pick it up.  With such an extensive Steam back catalogue, and being primarily an MMO player there have always been other calls for my time.  Being an adult sucks like that.  But when I saw the launch trailer for Mass Effect Andromeda (the music supervisor for that trailer deserves a huge raise by the way) I was blown away and decided that I just had to play the series in preparation.

I’d tried Mass Effect 1 before, and while I enjoyed it, I found the Citadel quests a little monotonous, so when I stopped playing for a few days I just didn’t start it up again and promptly forgot about it.  But with all the constant recommendations I decided that this time I was going to stick with it.  And I was not sorry!

The overarching story is deep and immersive.  The attention to detail is second to none.  Walking past characters you can’t even interact with and listening to their conversations made the world seem real.  It’s the joy and danger of truly immersive, interactive, player-driven storytelling.  Commander Shepard wasn’t just a character I was playing.  I was her.  She was an extension of me.  Her choices were my choices.  I didn’t treat her as an object to move through the game. I treated her as an extension of myself.  I refused to let myself restart missions for different outcomes.  I committed to my choices having a lasting effect.  Which is why the ending let me down so much.

Mass Effect 1 was a good game, but not a great one.  The story was brilliant, and the way my Shepard created her own little family on the Normandy was exceptional, but the side quests and planet exploration were repetitive and clunky.  The combat was enjoyable, and I liked speccing my character to suit my play style, but overall the game experience of ME1 didn’t blow me away.  Still, the story kept me going for Mass Effect 2, which is where the series really started to come into its own.

Mass Effect 3 Kaidan AlenkoMy female Shepard had romanced Kaidan in ME1.  The romance was a cute distraction at the time, but I didn’t feel any deep connection. It was masterful in ME2 that, despite Kaidan being only in a few minutes of the game it actually made me care about him in a way that the first game hadn’t.  The storytelling and interactive dialogue really improved in ME2, and for the first time, I was invested in all the characters.  Building a new team and creating a sense of loyalty in my crew gave them all depth.  I’d briefly considered setting up a new romance in ME2, but when I met Kaidan on Horizon, his reaction to seeing me with Cerberus was so real and believable that I was pretty shocked.

That moment in ME2 on Horizon seemed to get a pretty negative reaction for Kaidan, but for me, it appeared to be a very real way to react.  I was a little disappointed when he walked away from me in anger, but I understood, so I let my reaction to that filter into my conversations with other characters.  I thought then that I could probably move on and try to romance someone else to get the full game experience, but every time I went into the Commander’s quarters I saw his picture there, the truth was that I as a person just couldn’t do that to Kaidan, especially after his apology message, so ultimately my Shepard just couldn’t either.

While the romance seemed a little gimmicky on paper, by Mass Effect 3 it had me completely immersed.  It made me personally invested in the characters.  They weren’t pixels on a screen.  They were my friends and family.  Everything my Shepard was doing wasn’t just to save the earth and a bunch of strange NPCs I’d never meet; they were to protect these people who had been with me from the beginning.  That is why, when the ending came, at first I wasn’t too disappointed.  Part of that reason for me was the fact that I was so hooked that I’d played all three games non-stop in less than a week.  I played for full days, sometimes until 4 or 5 in the morning.  I just couldn’t stop!  I had to know what happened to these characters, and having my Shepard sacrifice herself for those who she loved made sense.  It hit me right in the feels, but it didn’t feel wrong.

But, after the buzz of non-stop play and immersive story came to an end, and I had a chance to sit back and think about it, I found myself getting a little angry.  The story up until that point had been masterful.  It had an internal logic, but on closer inspection, the end just didn’t.  It would have made sense to have all the existing options there as other players had made other decisions up until this point, but there was a fourth option that was what my Shepard had been building toward that the game simply didn’t address.

Every decision I’d made up until that point would have brought my Shepard to one, logical conclusion.  Convincing the Crucible of the fallacy of his argument.  The narrative and my decisions had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cycle could be broken.  I’d negotiated peace between the Quarians and the Geth, and the Geth were helping rebuild Rannock, the Quarian homeworld.  EDI was free to self-actualise and discover her individuality and was a valued member of my team.  The inevitable ending that the Crucible had foreseen was not inevitable in my world.  That should have been my ending. But instead, my Shepard’s decisions and choices were bastardised for shock value.  And that’s what it felt like.  So many hours that players spent investing in the character and their future ripped from them in a moment, thanks to a blatant plot twist for the sake of it.

I’m not going to lie, the franchise is still probably the best video game series I’ve played to date, and despite my disappointment at the ending, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The suicide mission of ME2 is probably the most immersive well developed final mission of any game I’ve ever played.  Ever.

Mass Effect Andromeda has some pretty big shoes to fill, but I’m definitely excited to play it.

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#BooksforChange

Virago Press are doing #BooksforChange for the month of March.  Every day we get to share our most influential and favourite female writers and female characters.   I can’t wait to see everyone else’s favourites and maybe discover some new books to read!

On day 1 of #BooksforChange, the book that made me feminist is without a doubt The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  That woman’s writing changed my life.  She writes across genres in a way that just drew me in from such a young age.  I devoured everything she’d written when I was in high school.

If you’ve never read any Margaret Atwood you must!

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Review: ‘Rattle’ by Fiona Cummins

Rattle by Fiona CumminsRattle won’t deliver anything new or provide any unexpected twists and turns, but what it does provide is a pretty gripping read that I devoured in only a few sittings.  Fiona Cummins gives us a strong, albeit formulaic, addition to the crime thriller genre that seethes with menace and tension.

I don’t want to give a plot outline because I honestly think that it will detract from the reading experience.  But what this book does have is a pretty unique psychopath and a bevvy of damaged characters who are just trying to get through life the best they can.  We see the abduction of their children affect two families in very different ways, and best of all, Fiona Cummins has included some interesting details about dealing with Natural History collections and biological specimens.  As a former museum curator, I loved reading about that part of her story.

Rattle is full of rich descriptions.  There is one passage that I thought was so beautiful I just have to share it:

Ribbons and sheets of ossified matter.  Stalagmites and bridges.  Twisted plates and bony nubs… He stands alone in the hallway, and drinks in the glory of the skeleton in its glass case, mesmerised by its distortions, the incursion of bone into thoracic cavity, the calcified trimmings decorating his spine.  A young boy trapped in a prison of stone.

It makes the human body sound like a work of art.  I’d heard of Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive before under its more commonly used name, ‘Stone Man Syndrome’ but I didn’t know a lot about it.  Rattle managed to give it a human face as I realised how difficult it must be not just for the sufferer, but for the families who have to see their children become trapped in their own bodies.  The Frith family were strong, but damaged, and had very real reactions to the reality of living with a sick child.  The Frith’s grew as characters as the novel progressed, and I was impressed with the reality of their emotions and the way Fiona Cummins wrote them in a way that ensures empathy rather than pity.

DS Etta Fitzroy was an interesting character herself, although not entirely original.  Every crime novel these days needs a disgraced detective with a tragic backstory, so she seemed more like an archetype than a real, fleshed out character.  She also made stupid mistakes unbecoming of a detective that felt contrived to bring a bit more tension to the narrative rather than for any reason that made sense to the story.  It was moments like these that brought the quality of Rattle down for me.

For me, my biggest disappointment with Rattle was its lack of any real resolution.  I’m not sure if Fiona Cummins was setting it up for a sequel or to become a series, but because of this, the whole novel felt somehow, unfinished.  Instead of making me want to desperately pick up the next book when it’s written, it made the preceding parts of the story feel somewhat lacking.  I just needed more from it.  I needed more explanation, more detail, more motivation and more resolution.  The ending betrayed what had, up to that point, been a stellar novel.

All in all, Rattle was a gripping, enjoyable read.  But if you’re looking for something groundbreaking that will reinvent the genre, then you’ll have to keep looking.  While the villain was interesting and unique, the plot, in general, was on crime thriller rails.  If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll know where it’s going.  But at least you’ll enjoy the journey.

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Review: ‘Perfect’ by Cecilia Ahern

Perfect by Cecilia AhernPerfect is the second (and it seems final) book in Cecelia Ahern’s Young Adult Series Flawed.  Everything that made Flawed such a surprise was still there, but somehow Perfect just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Celestine North was the perfect teenager until she runs afoul of the law by standing up for an elderly gentleman on a bus who just happened to be branded Flawed by an all-powerful government entity called The Guild.  Branded Flawed herself for the infraction Celestine finds herself the unwitting figurehead for the movement to destroy the guild.  On the run, with no one to trust, Celestine must find the evidence to clear her name, and stand in defence of all the other Flawed.

There is nothing new or original here.  It’s every YA dystopian novel ever written, all amalgamated in to one.  There wasn’t anything original in Flawed either, but because of the strength of the writing and the narrative style it was easy to forgive.  Perfect has as many moments of tragic, visceral violence as its predecessor, and has just as many truly emotional moments that kept me reading in to the wee hours of the morning.  So why then could I not enjoy this one as much as the first?

Cecelia Ahern made one mistake with Perfect.  She broke the fourth wall.  She made the mistake of using current pop culture references in her narrative which broke me out of my suspension of disbelief and brought the whole plot and concept come crashing down around my ears.

When something is set in a similar society with its own rules and logic I can believe how entities like the guild come to be.  But when an author suggests that this fantasy world is somehow akin to my present, then there had better be some really deep and well thought out world building to make me believe it.  But there wasn’t.  So I didn’t.

As soon as the one flaw comes out in a book the house of cards that was narrative believability came crashing down.  All of a sudden, I was thinking about what was happening in the rest of the world.  Why is the UN not stepping in for human rights violations?  Why on earth would people allow this dictatorship to start in the first place, especially since they still have a democratic voting system and the Flawed are still allowed to vote?  As soon as I was reading a book about my world, and not some alternate fantasy world, the questions just kept coming and coming and the book failed to be in any way believable.

Celestine was still a decent character, but I still needed more development of the satellite characters.  There was a feeble attempt at a love triangle that went nowhere, and Celestine’s relationship with Carrick was just not developed enough to convince me that they’d do everything that they did for each other.

Perfect wasn’t bad, and it did bring the two-book series to an end in a satisfying way.  Despite its flaws, Flawed is still a much better series than Divergent and was really fun to read.  I read the book in a day, because I just needed to keep reading to see how it ends.  No matter what else I say about the book, that’s probably the most important.  It was enjoyable. (If not entirely believable).

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